As a long-time resident of the Pacific Northwest, I love the outdoors. We are fortunate to have so many gems in our area and it's one of the main reasons that this region continues to be a destination point for families with young children looking for a place to settle down and call home.
My story is similar to most of us in Bellingham. I re-located my business to the Port of Bellingham in the not too distant past. As for some background, I've been in the business of operating two family-run boatyards in Seattle since 1973. When the opportunity and capital arose to add a third location, I could have chosen anywhere on the water to start a new yard. Candidly, it was not a difficult choice. Bellingham offered everything that I was looking for: a hard-working, skilled workforce, a high standard of living and quality of life, as well as a working waterfront that needed a boatyard that could provide a full spectrum of high-quality work at an excellent value to the consumer.
It is unfortunate that community leaders would disparage the need for a marina. Somewhere along the way, they have lost the connection to our area's maritime heritage. The undeniable truth is that behind every boat and every marina is a whole supply chain anxiously awaiting their need for services and provisions. Canvassers, plumbers, electricians, detailers, computer technicians all bustle in and out of a marina, which is the central component to a working waterfront. While former Mayor Pike would prefer to not have a mast obstruct his view as he noted in his op-ed, he misses the tie between that mast and the careers and jobs that keep it afloat. Jobs that support you, your children, your neighbor, and your aunt and uncle. Whether they work directly in the marine business, pack your groceries at Haggen's, serve you coffee or sell you gas all of us are connected to that mast. And that mast puts food on the table for the vast majority of us. I certainly understand that boating is not for everyone. However, what is universal is the need for good-paying jobs in a career field that preserves our heritage and matches the available skill base. That is exactly what Seaview offers the local community and that is what you'll find with the myriad of marine trades scattered throughout Whatcom County. According to a recent economic impact study commissioned by NW Marine Trade Association, the average marine business size is 11.5 employees. Forty percent of those employed in the 28,000 marine trades (the vast majority of which reside in Puget Sound and, in particular, the North Sound) are highly skilled, technical workers with an average salary of $56,000. These sound like the types of careers we should be doing everything we can to support.
While I appreciate the dialogue that is taking place, I find it troubling that the plan to build a marina has become such a divisive wedge in our community. When the talking points turn to subsidizing "the 1 percent over the rest of the community," I want to call a time out. Not to point out the obvious, but the fact is that boaters spend money when they are here and they don't spend money here when they are somewhere else. Boats equal jobs. The conversation taking place needs to focus on the facts if there is any hope that it can represent actually what's going on. Marine tourism is without question a good thing for the community. Even though our state does not agree (since we are the only state to not have a tourism office), I can tell you that visitors show up, enjoy our area, spend their money and then return home, taking their wallets with them. Whether tourists arrive by air, water or pavement they have a positive cash-flow impact on their destination. As I see it, that's a benefit with no downside.
But if you look deeper into the Port of Bellingham's numbers, marine tourists are not their primary target. The truth is that about 80 percent of the moorage customers in Bellingham are locals, with a mix of both recreational and commercial vessels. Again, I can't see any downside.
As a local business owner and taxpayer, I am asking my city council to get this right. Bellinghams maritime heritage has arrived at a crossroads and we have to make a decision that supports this heritage. We can turn our back on what made us such a unique place, but we do so at our own peril. Or we can recognize that it is possible to have it both ways. We can have parks and we can have the living-wage jobs and small, profitable businesses that continue to provide the tax revenue funding to support these parks. This is exactly what was put forward with the Port of Bellinghams master plan. As for me, I support our maritime heritage. As the saying goes, behind every boat is a working waterfront.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Phil Riise is president Bellingham businesses Seaview Boatyard North, Inc. and Seaview Yacht Services Fairhaven, Inc.