BELLINGHAM - The Bellingham Maritime Museum could be forced to shut down if no lease deal can be struck with Port of Bellingham commissioners, said museum director Mike Granat.
Granat acknowledges the museum cannot pay market rate for lease of the space it occupies in a metal-sided warehouse at 800 Cornwall Ave. Port commissioners are expected to consider the museum's lease during a closed session before their regular 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 5, public meeting at the Harbor Center conference room, 1801 Roeder Ave.
"Let them make their decision," Granat said. "If it's not favorable, then we'll have no alternative but to shut the museum down. ... We don't have anyplace else to go."
The museum is already limited in scope, only open to the public from noon to 3 p.m. Saturdays.
Its exhibits include boats of both local and national historical significance. Among them are a PBR vessel built in Bellingham by United Boat Builders. The PBR saw action on the rivers of Vietnam during that war.
Also on display is what is billed as the only surviving PACV Hovercraft from the Vietnam War, and a restored World War II Army amphibious vehicle, or DUKW.
Handcrafted wooden boats built by Dave Berg are another highlight. Berg has made working reconstructions of classic wooden boats from the early days of motorized pleasure boating, using bronze fittings and some engine parts that he casts himself. Berg said he expects to have to sell the collection if the museum shuts down.
Port Real Estate Director Shirley McFearin said the museum has an existing lease in the building for 3,000 square feet at $750 per month, but is actually using perhaps eight or nine times that amount of space - a fact that Granat does not deny.
"We're trespassing in here because we've grown outside our footprint, and we know that," Granat said.
He also acknowledged that the port probably could find tenants willing to pay the market rate if the museum was gone.
Museum backers have said they could get by with 15,000 square feet, and McFearin said she will discuss the matter with commissioners to find out if they are willing to provide the museum with that much space for less than the current market rate of 25 cents per square foot.
"We can't give a gift of public funds by giving space away," McFearin said. "They've kind of encroached into areas outside of their leasehold. I have to address that in some manner."
McFearin acknowledged that commissioners have the authority to give the museum a break on rent. The Northwest Discovery Project's marine life exhibit at Squalicum Harbor gets 726 square feet of space, and the port covers most of its expenses.
Tim Douglas, former Bellingham mayor, serves on the museum's board of directors. He said the museum would have a tough time surviving if it were forced to try to shrink back to the 3,000-square-foot limits of its current lease. That would mean getting rid of most of the exhibits.
"It would not survive anything like it is now," Douglas said.
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