Walker proud of 'landmarks' he helped create at Bellingham port

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDDecember 9, 2013 

BELLINGHAM - As he prepares to leave the Port of Bellingham Commission after 22 years, Scott Walker hopes he will be remembered for the landmarks he helped to build on the waterfront.

"I'm sort of a guy who likes to build landmarks," Walker said. "The Bellwether, Zuanich Point Park and the (Squalicum) Boathouse have become landmarks in this community."

At a Thursday, Dec. 5, reception for Walker, port staffers offered him a piece of another now-demolished local landmark as a going-away present: a slice of steel from the old Bellingham International Airport baggage slide. That slide, relic of an earlier era, was recently replaced with a modern carousel-style baggage claim area that Walker had been demanding for years. The carousel is part of a $38 million terminal expansion project that Walker championed.

For many people, Walker's name is most strongly associated with the 2012 ouster of Charlie Sheldon as the port's executive director. In October 2011, a year after Sheldon had taken over the job, Walker made a motion to seek Sheldon's resignation. Commissioners Jim Jorgensen and Mike McAuley refused to agree, but Walker kept up the pressure. In April 2012, after meeting with port staffers who backed Walker and opposed Sheldon, Jorgensen changed his mind and Sheldon was out.

Then came the uproar. Sheldon had made a lot of friends among port tenants and others in the community. They packed the commission chambers to urge commissioners to reconsider. But Jorgensen and Walker stood firm.

"I had no intent to make this a big thing," Walker said in a recent interview. "The outcry was very surprising to me."

But Walker said he has no regrets, other than his acknowledged role in recruiting Sheldon for the job in the first place. As he sees it, Sheldon had lost the support of Environmental Director Mike Stoner and then-Chief Financial Officer Rob Fix, and could no longer be effective in the executive role.

The episode also helped open a bitter rift between Walker and Sheldon's lone backer on the port commission, Mike McAuley. When McAuley ran for reelection in 2013, Walker endorsed challenger Ken Bell and accompanied that endorsement with a scathing critique of McAuley's performance on the commission.

McAuley won a narrow reelection victory. To the surprise of no one, he was a no-show at Walker's farewell reception.

Walker is a native of Anaconda, Mont., who retired as manager of government and community affairs at the BP Cherry Point refinery. When Walker joined the port commission in 1992, after unseating incumbent Ed Griemsmann in the 1991 election, the port still relied on shipping revenues from freighters docking at the Cornwall Avenue pier to load Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and Alcoa aluminum.

Once on the commission, Walker said he pushed to modernize the port's financial practices, and he credited former CFO John Carter and former Executive Director Jim Darling with getting that job done.

Walker said he also advocated the removal of a subsidy for the port's Squalicum Harbor and Blaine marinas, moving to a system in which moorage rates covered marina costs. That freed money for other projects.

Walker, who has a master's degree in environmental science, said he also realized that the port needed to beef up its environmental capabilities. The port hired Stoner as its first environmental director.

"I didn't anticipate how much environmental work we would be doing 20 years later," Walker said, referring to the massive cleanup project underway on the old G-P site that the port took over in 2005.

Walker also takes some of the credit for the Bellwether development, where he pushed for port-funded underground parking instead of the sprawling parking lot that developers had initially proposed. As Walker sees it, that expense made the project more appealing and successful than it might have been otherwise.

The port also improved and increased its park lands during Walker's tenure. The concrete rubble at Marine Park in Fairhaven was replaced with a sand and gravel shoreline, and Zuanich Point Park was built at Squalicum Harbor.

"I want to leave this port with a legacy that it's better than it was when I arrived," Walker 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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