This month the Port Commission and City Council will hold public hearings and vote on a waterfront property exchange. The exchange, if approved, will create opportunities for new jobs, further economic development and waterfront public access -- all cause for community optimism.
But perhaps of greater note is the strong spirit of cooperation and shared community interest that led to the proposed exchange. Since the port acquired the former Georgia Pacific site in January 2005, the city has been a partner with the port in the goal of redeveloping Bellingham's waterfront.
Staff and elected officials of both governments recognize that the redevelopment will only be successful if it is done cooperatively. Port and city staff and leaders are meeting continuously to complete the proposed Waterfront District master plan and related documents by the end of this year.
While working on those documents, it became clear that some parts of the Waterfront District had a jigsaw puzzle of land ownership between the port and the city. This created complexity likely to hold both governments back from moving efficiently to do the work they do best.
So we proposed a fair-value, cash-free property exchange that, if approved, should benefit the entire community. We believe this type of cooperative problem-solving is an example of local government being efficient and effective.
What land is involved and how will the exchange work? If approved, the port will own additional property in the marine trades area of the Waterfront District and the city will own additional property in the Cornwall Beach area.
SUPPORTING MARINE TRADES
The marine trades area on the central waterfront shoreline facing the Whatcom Waterway presently is owned by both the port and the city. The exchange would result in most of the property being owned by the port. Several large marine industrial businesses already are on that property, with dozens of smaller businesses operating in secondary lease arrangements. Those large businesses include The Landings at Colony Wharf and Aggregates Northwest.
During the past several years, these businesses have had short-term leases, which prevented them from having the certainty to make investments in their businesses and the property. In anticipation of this potential land exchange, port and city representatives have been meeting with business owners to assure them that their businesses are important and to lay the groundwork for future long-term leases.
The port is poised to make an additional infrastructure investment of approximately $3 million as part of an environmental cleanup on the central waterfront shoreline currently owned by the city but proposed to be included in the exchange. This cleanup will be overseen by the State Department of Ecology and will be done in a manner that will allow the shoreline to continue to work for marine uses.
Having a single owner for this section of shoreline will allow the port to manage the property so that multiple businesses -- existing and new -- can make use of the public investment in shoreline improvements. The port already is working to find additional businesses to create new jobs within the next year.
PUBLIC ACCESS AND DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITIES
The land exchange will consolidate city property ownership in the Cornwall Beach area, presently jointly owned by the port and city. The Cornwall Beach area has long been envisioned as an area for waterfront public access with parks, trails and mixed-use development. Consolidating city properties simplifies planning for that area. The public will have chances to weigh in on proposals for the development of this property next year.
The proposed property exchange also calls for the port to grant the city access to the breakwater surrounding the former Georgia Pacific treatment lagoon, as well as access to adjacent property for public parking. We expect to propose that a public trail be built along the breakwater within the next couple of years.
The proposed exchange does not affect the timing or plans for environmental cleanup at these waterfront properties, and requires that both governments retain clean-up responsibilities and liabilities that are already in place, as described in various agreements with the Department of Ecology and other parties.
We believe this land exchange, and the cooperation it demonstrates, is good government and is good for our community.
Kelli Linville is mayor of Bellingham and Rob Fix is the Port of Bellingham interim executive director.