Tyler Schroeder to lead Port of Bellingham economic development - Salish Current
February 29, 2024
Tyler Schroeder to lead Port of Bellingham economic development
Matt Benoit

Yes, it operates a marina, but the Port of Bellingham’s role in economic development encompasses recreation, housing and much more — and a longtime Whatcom County deputy executive is stepping in as its new department director. (Salish Current ©)

February 29, 2024
Tyler Schroeder to lead Port of Bellingham economic development
Matt Benoit

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When Tyler Schroeder moved to Whatcom County to attend Western Washington University in the late 1990s, he fell in love with both his wife and the area. 

He never left.

After close to 20 years working for county government, Schroeder is leaving his role as Whatcom County Deputy Executive and moving to the Port of Bellingham this spring to become its new economic development director. 

The port announced the move in a Feb. 2 press release. Schroeder replaces Don Goldberg, who resigned from the position last fall. Schroeder’s move means changes for the leadership teams at both the port and county, municipalities that frequently work together on various local issues.  

In an interview with Salish Current, Schroeder said that after nearly a decade serving two different Whatcom County executives, the time was right for a change. 

“There’s no good time to make that transition — especially as I’ve kind of put my heart and soul into Whatcom County professionally,” he said. “But I did also recognize that this is just a great utilization of my background, my education, my community relationships, to kind of take that next step.”

Changes at the county

The port, Schroeder said, has always been a place he’d wanted to work. 

When the economic development director position became available, he began conversations with the Port’s Executive Director Rob Fix and other port commissioners. 

Tyler Schroeder is changing roles, stepping into the economic development director role at the Port of Bellingham. (Courtesy photo)

Fix said the economic development work that the county and port have done creates a natural overlap for the work Schroeder has signed up for. 

“Tyler’s been at the table for the past 10 years regarding economic development,” Fix said. “That’s what will make this such a seamless transition.”

That transition will not be complete until May, when Schroeder officially concludes his executive deputy duties. Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu said he informed the county council last week that he is already on the hunt for Schroeder’s replacements, and hopes to have them in the next four to six weeks. 

He is aiming for two hires, he said, because Schroeder has also served as the county’s director of administrative services — overseeing the county’s finance, human resources, facilities and IT departments. 

“He was able to do both jobs because of his prior knowledge and depth of relationships,” Sidhu said. 

While the county has seen ample growth in its governing departments in the last 20 years, Sidhu said the executive’s office has not seen such an expansion. Schroeder’s departure is an opportunity, he said, to add a second deputy executive in order to strengthen the office to better serve the county.

Schroeder said that adding a second deputy executive will better allow the executive’s office to achieve internal and external objectives, the latter of which include implementing projects like the Justice Project and Healthy Children’s Fund. (For more: “Remember Prop 5, the Healthy Children’s Fund?” Salish Current, Dec. 18, 2023)

The former of those is what Schroeder considers among his biggest accomplishments with the county: forging community discussions about justice, behavioral health and funding mechanisms for a new jail. 

Driving development

While the Port of Bellingham has many focuses throughout the county — from operating marinas, parks, an airport and shipping terminals to commercial and industrial real estate transactions — perhaps its most significant endeavor is driving economic development throughout the county.

With funding help from both the City of Bellingham and Whatcom County, the port’s Regional Economic Partnership (REP) works to attract and retain businesses and living wage jobs within county borders. The value of this, said Sidhu, is immense.

“I think (economic development) impacts every city, every county government and private business, and the image of (our) county to Canadians and to the people to our south,” he said. 

The county and port, Sidhu added, have worked hand-in-hand on issues ranging from toxic clean-up sites to countywide broadband access, and Schroeder’s presence at the port will likely strengthen future the relationship between the two entities. 

Some of the port’s most recent economic successes include the local recruitment of Corvus Energy, a low and zero-emission maritime battery technology company based in Norway and Canada.  In January 2023, the company opened a battery factory in Fairhaven. 

The port also was instrumental in the opening of a $22 million, 100,000 square-foot electric bus manufacturing plant at Ferndale’s Pacific Fern Business Park last year. The plant, owned by Vicinity Motor Corporation — a Canadian electric truck and bus maker — can assemble up to 850 buses and over 6,200 trucks annually. 

The port, county and Washington State University also recently partnered with Whatcom County’s agricultural community to develop an agricultural research station with the aid of state funding.

While the port cannot provide grants to businesses, it can accept grant funding to help businesses expand or move anywhere in Whatcom County, and can also connect employers with resources for tax incentives, workforce training, and business counseling, according to the port website. The port also has an Industrial Development Corporation capable of issuing low-interest, tax-exempt bonds for qualifying projects. 

Extending broadband

The port’s $20 million Rural Broadband Construction Project, in partnership with the Whatcom Public Utility District and the county, is also among its biggest ongoing activities in economic development. 

The project is responsible for constructing and expanding a rural broadband network, and currently has four project areas, Fix said. “Pre-COVID, we saw a need for extending broadband out to rural areas to help those economies. COVID hit, and all of a sudden it became a lot more important.”

In one area, a Whatcom Public Utility District plan to expand broadband to Point Roberts, involves a $3.15 million grant to the PUD from the Washington State Broadband Office, with $350,000 in matching grants from Whatcom County and a $250,000 capital allocation from the state Legislature. 

An October 2023 press release provided the most recent update on the work to serve around 2,000 homes and businesses, with funding from the Community Economic Revitalization Board, Washington State Broadband Office, and Whatcom County. 

Hilton Harbor Marina, south of Squalicum Marina, is among marine-oriented businesses along the shore of Bellingham Bay. (Matt Benoit / Salish Current © 2024)

Areas include North Lynden, serving 678 addresses, North Ferndale (456 addresses) and East Nooksack/North Mosquito Lake Road (729 addresses). The port contributed $114,000 in capital funds to the latter. The three projects are expected to be completed by 2025. 

Conflicts on the waterfront

Not all of the Port’s plans for progress have been appreciated, however. 

While the transformation of part of the former Georgia-Pacific pulp mill site into a community park and container village has been lauded by the community as a positive vision for a community gathering space and working waterfront, other development in the area is fraught with controversy. 

The ABC Recycling scrap-metal loading at the shipping terminal has drawn noise and dust complaints from residential neighbors and promises from the Port to reduce loading noise.

The Canadian company plans to build a metal-shredding operation at 741 Marine Drive that would provide iron-based scrap for the port’s Bellingham Shipping Terminal, which would load boats with the metals to be shipped overseas.

The proposed project has attracted widespread pushback from locals, including a raucous December public meeting where hundreds of people attended; many voiced their displeasure with concerns about noise and environmental hazards.

On Feb. 21, port officials notified ABC that the company had defaulted on its lease for failing to meet environmental requirements, and has given them 30 days to correct its violations or be forced from the waterfront. 

Plans, delays … and progress

Similarly, the building of high-end condominiums by Harcourt Developments stalled out last October, when the Ireland-based firm defaulted on their contract stipulations for completing several residential buildings on part of the former G-P site. 

Criticism of the deal, which former Bellingham Bay Foundation board member John D’ Onofrio called a “devil’s bargain” in a Jan. 4 op-ed prompted an op-ed response from Fix on Jan. 19.

Fix told readers that while criticism was valid, he defended the port’s thoughtful and patient approach to waterfront development. 

“Comprehensive public engagement has given us a master plan that reflects Whatcom County’s values,” he wrote. “Redeveloping contaminated industrial property is complicated, expensive and takes longer than ‘greenfield’ sites [land where buildings have not been built before] like Barkley Village. This process is frustrating for the port too, but we have made a lot of progress since taking over a sprawling industrial complex with no roads, infrastructure or public access.”

Fix also mentioned the pending completion of some of the area’s projects, including Mercy Housing Northwest’s Millworks affordable housing project and Harcourt’s condos along Granary Avenue. (For more: “Expectations are high, questions remain as waterfront neighborhood takes shape,” Salish Current, April 28, 2023)

Also planned by the Boardmill Group is the renovation of the historic Boardmill Building on the waterfront campus into a 107-room hotel and banquet hall, construction of 160 residential units with commercial and restaurant space, and a parking structure with commercial space, 80 residential units and top-floor park space.

 As of press time, the Granary Avenue condos remain unfinished.  

Looking to the future

While he might be slightly disheartened to lose Schroeder from his office, Sidhu said he realizes that Schroeder has essentially reached his ceiling in county government regarding unelected positions. 

“He more or less was the highest position in the county government,” Sidhu said. “I support his career ambitions.”

When Schroeder — a 40-something with many career miles ahead of him — was asked if he’d entertain an elected office like county executive in the future, he indicated that he’s focused more on his next steps.

“I feel like my skillset, and assets to this community, is still to help kind of guide where elected visions are, and make them reality,” Schroeder said. “I’m going to continue to do that for the near future, and let some of those future opportunities — if they arise — arise.”

Because Bellingham and many county municipalities are examining their comprehensive planning efforts right now, Schroeder said he hopes all parties involved in local economic development can harness that knowledge into ensuring how best to build a strong and resilient economy. 

“I knew (Whatcom County) was a place I wanted to provide some support and stability in community initiatives (when I first moved here),” he said. “I knew it was the community I wanted to raise my children in, and I feel like this is a good transition for me to continue those efforts while also opening up a new lens on where I can serve the community and their different priorities.”

— Reported by Matt Benoit

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