Moving Bellingham city employees to Federal Building to cost $2 million

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 2, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - About 40 city employees will be at work in the Federal Building at Cornwall Avenue and Magnolia Street by the end of 2014, after the building's interior gets about $2 million worth of upgrades.

Bellingham Public Works Director Ted Carlson said most of the money will be spent on electrical and communications systems upgrades to make the building safe and otherwise suitable for city workers.

The current plan is to transfer Public Works employees now at City Hall into the new quarters. That includes Carlson and the rest of the department's administration, as well as engineering. The department's natural resources staff also may be moved there from their present offices in the Pacific Street complex.

That will give cramped City Hall departments more elbow room. Carlson said the vacated space likely will be used for city permits staff, and some parks planners now operating from offices in Cornwall Park could be shifted there.

While only 40 workers are expected to move into the Federal Building in the coming year, as many as 100 could work there eventually, Carlson said.

At a Nov. 25 budget planning session, Mayor Kelli Linville told skeptical City Council members that the city is already spending more than $200,000 a year on the nearly empty century-old landmark building acquired from the U.S. government for $1 in 2004. Moving employees there will provide the city with some value for the money being spent on a building that the city can't sell or tear down.

The city also has been unable to secure other tenants for the building since federal offices moved out. The city's Public Development Authority and its executive director, Jim Long, explored a variety of other roles for the building in recent years but determined that upgrading it enough to attract private tenants would cost far more than the current plan.

Linville assured the council that the Federal Building will be getting the bare minimum upgrade to make it usable.

"We're not going to have the Taj Mahal over there," she told the council.

Council member Terry Bornemann liked the idea. The $2 million renovation expense is far less than what it would cost to construct a new office building for 40 people, he said.

Carlson said the city took a look at the possibility of moving Municipal Court from its current C Street location to the Federal Building, which has a lovely old courtroom. But parking would be inadequate, and Carlson said city officials have decided to use the space for city functions that don't draw a steady stream of visitors.

The city has a long-term goal of getting rid of the Municipal Court building, which is also expensive to maintain. But there is no alternative court site on the drawing board, Carlson said.

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

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