Advocates renew call for living wages on Bellingham waterfront

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMarch 30, 2013 

waterfront  jobs

Owner Robin Dexter holds onto a crane hook while preparing to launch his 52-foot purse seiner Labyrinth with help of a Ness Crane on May 12, 2011 at The Landing on Colony Wharf in Bellingham. Environmentalists and labor leaders are asking Port of Bellingham officials to add specific language in waterfront development plans to ensure that the estimated thousands of new jobs there are "living wage."

PHILIP A. DWYER — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

BELLINGHAM - Environmentalists and labor leaders say they expect to keep on pressing for specific language in waterfront development plans to ensure that the estimated thousands of new jobs there are "living wage."

At a Thursday, March 28, public hearing before the Bellingham Planning Commission, living wage advocates spoke up again, as they had at a similar meeting a week before. Mark Lowry, president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, said the labor-environment coalition is going to keep up the pressure on that issue as waterfront plans move from the Bellingham Planning Commission to City Council.

Lowry said he and others want to see firm language in waterfront land-use plans that will deliver better-paying jobs, not just service jobs.

"We want to filter what comes in down there," Lowry said.

At this point, those who want to turn the waterfront into a living-wage zone have not proposed specific measures to achieve that goal. Lowry said specifics are still being developed, and they could take a variety of forms.

"I'm interested in the destination, not the vehicle that gets me there," Lowry said. "There is broad public support for this."

As he and others see it, the big public investment in the waterfront - likely to be well above $100 million - mandates a big public payoff: creation of lots of better-paying jobs.

In the past, Western Washington University economist Hart Hodges has been openly skeptical of government efforts to target their job creation efforts toward only those jobs considered most desirable.

During a 2011 presentation at Bellingham City Club, Hodges said states and cities elsewhere have invested millions in hopes of luring high-tech jobs to create the next Silicon Valley, but such efforts often yield disappointing results.

But in a recent interview, Hodges said his review of economic research indicates that elsewhere in the country, local efforts to encourage - or force - payment of higher wages have shown mixed results.

Hodges said the research indicates that the worst fears about living-wage measures seem to be misplaced. There is not much evidence that these measures scare off employers and crush job creation, as conservative critics contend. The disincentives to employers seem to be mild or even negligible in the cases that economists have studied.

But at the same time, there is little evidence that these well-intentioned measures succeed in improving the living standards of large numbers of people, Hodges said.

"Overall you get very little measurable effect," Hodges said. "They don't do much for poverty."

In 2002, the Bellingham City Council passed a living-wage ordinance meant to raise the incomes of employees with companies that do business with city government. But the ordinance was watered down before passage, after a staff analysis determined that the ordinance as originally proposed would have cost taxpayers more than $200,000 a year.

Four years later, an analysis by The Bellingham Herald determined that only a tiny fraction of city contracts - well below 1 percent - were affected by the ordinance, mostly because it had a lot of loopholes and many firms were already paying higher wages because of state prevailing wage laws on government jobs.

At Thursday's hearing, two commercial fishermen said their industry already provides a decent living for fishermen and workers in support services. They want a waterfront plan that guarantees space for those jobs, even if the real estate market starts to boom again and developers begin to see marine industrial areas as potential luxury condo sites.

"Bellingham is not Marina del Rey, where everything is beautiful and nothing happens," fisherman Jim Kyle said. "Tell them (developers) Bellingham is a working town, not a bedroom town."

Commercial fisherman Robin Dexter said the current plan looked to him like "Bellwether on steroids," a reference to the Port of Bellingham's hotel, shop and office development near Squalicum Harbor.

"I don't want Bellwether," Dexter said. "No one here wants Bellwether. We want another Bellingham neighborhood."

Thursday's meeting also indicated one possible conflict between industrial jobs and widespread desire for public access to the water's edge.

Several commenters noted that earlier versions of waterfront plans had called for a pedestrian and bike path at the water's edge all along the old pulp mill site southwest of downtown. But the current plan envisions a possible interruption in that path near the Port of Bellingham shipping terminal, if the path would interfere with job-creating industrial uses.

Bellingham resident Mitch Friedman, a longtime environmental activist, said he hoped planners would figure out how to deliver the promised water's edge access while still creating plenty of good jobs.


WHAT'S NEXT

• Send written comments to: planningcommission@cob.org.

• Planning Commission deliberations to begin 7 p.m. April 11, City Council chambers, 210 Lottie St.

• City Council will hold its own hearings and discussions after getting commission's take.

• Review the plans here: cob.org/services/planning/waterfront.

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com. Read his politics blog at blogs.bellinghamherald.com/politics or follow him on Twitter at @bhamheraldpolitics.

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