Port picks Irish developer for possible deal on Bellingham's waterfront

First phase would mix retail, offices, residences on 11 acres

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 13, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - The Port of Bellingham soon may begin negotiations on a waterfront redevelopment contract with Harcourt Developments Limited, a Dublin-based firm best known for a huge Belfast project that includes a Titanic museum on the site of a shipyard where the ill-fated ocean liner was built.

The matter will be on port commissioners' agenda for their next meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, at port headquarters, 1801 Roeder Ave. If port commissioners approve, Port Executive Director Rob Fix and his staff will have 120 days to work out a complex development contract with Harcourt that also would be subject to port commissioners' approval when it is completed.

Harcourt, said to have operations in 10 countries, is expected to work with some local firms if the project moves ahead. Details remain hazy, but the development of the first phase of the waterfront is expected to include a mix of retail, office and residential buildings, with a new facility for Western Washington University that has been described as a "community learning center."

If the port and Harcourt can come to terms, Harcourt would be the lead developer on the first 11-acre phase of waterfront development in the area that includes the Granary Building - the first small slice of the 237 waterfront acres that the port and city hope to bring back to life in the decades to come. In its initial presentation to the port in 2013, Harcourt expressed interest in taking on the entire waterfront, but that alternative is not on the table.

Fix said Harcourt was the consensus choice of an evaluation committee that considered the qualifications of Harcourt and two other groups that expressed interest: Portland, Ore.-based Williams/Dame & Associates and Uniting Creatives/Four Pillars, a team of local activists and visionaries joining forces with The Perfume Foundation.

The other contenders need not be shut out of the project, Fix said. All three organizations had good ideas, and Harcourt is being encouraged to work with them to incorporate their best ideas and perhaps get them involved in the project.

Harcourt also is being encouraged to work with a local partnership - Tollhouse Energy and Zervas Group Architects. Tollhouse and Zervas have submitted a plan to convert The Granary Building into a hydroelectric power plant that could use the old industrial water main that once supplied huge quantities of Lake Whatcom water to the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and paper mill on the waterfront.

Fix acknowledged that there are many uncertainties surrounding the hydroelectric proposal, but he said Tollhouse and Zervas are interested in rehabilitation of the Granary even if the hydroelectric project proves unworkable.

"We're trying to take the best elements and put them together," Fix said. "Harcourt has indicated that they like that idea."

The evaluation committee that selected Harcourt included Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws; City Economic Development Manager Tara Sundin; Western Washington University Vice President Steve Swan; port executives Carolyn Casey, Mike Stoner, and Sylvia Goodwin; Lydia Bennett, the port's former business development director; and representatives of Heartland, a real estate consulting firm hired by the port.

Fix said Harcourt's top executives visited Bellingham and spoke with other community representatives during the selection process.

"They seemed like a good fit for our community," Fix said. "They seem like they get our community."

Two key questions remain to be answered: How much of a return will the port get on its investment in cleaning up the waterfront? How soon will construction projects get underway?

Fix said Harcourt has proposed a partnership, in which the port would contribute the real estate and Harcourt would shoulder the construction costs. Once the development begins generating revenue, the port and the company would share in that revenue based on the value of their contributions to the partnership.

As to the timing of construction, that will depend on market demand.

"I can't emphasize enough that none of this is going to happen unless demand is there," Fix said. "We're not going to build buildings that will sit empty, and we're not going to move tenants from one part of town to the other."

Reach John Stark at 360-715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com . Read the Politics Blog at bellinghamherald.com/politics-blog or get updates on Twitter at @bhampolitics.

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