Port of Bellingham commission approves talks with Irish firm on waterfront

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 19, 2014 

BELLINGHAM - Port of Bellingham commissioners have agreed to begin negotiations with Dublin-based Harcourt Developments Limited on a deal to redevelop the first 11 acres of central waterfront.

At their Tuesday, Feb. 18, meeting, commissioners stressed that the port and the company are a long way from having a deal in place to develop those first 11 acres, which include the Granary Building. And although Harcourt has expressed interest in redeveloping the entire 237-acre waterfront area, that is not part of the discussion at this stage.

Commissioner Dan Robbins said he wanted to reassure the many people who had emailed him complaining that the port was moving too fast in selecting a waterfront developer.

"We aren't selecting anyone at this point," Robbins said.

Before they took their unanimous vote to approve a 120-day negotiating period with Harcourt, commissioners heard some negative comments from people concerned about legal and financial problems Harcourt has experienced on some of its projects in recent years.

"You've got to be real careful, because even some major developers have had problems," said commercial fisherman Doug Karlberg, a frequent port critic. "Harcourt has had some issues, like a lot of developers have."

Karlberg also criticized Harcourt's proposal to create a joint venture with the port, in which the port would contribute real estate and the company would provide financing for development. The port and Harcourt would then share in the profits based on the value of their contributions to the project.

Karlberg contended that most people had expected the port to sell or lease waterfront property at a price that would recapture public costs for cleanup and other things.

"Now it looks like we had an auction for the land and nobody showed up," Karlberg said.

Port Executive Director Rob Fix denied that, saying the port was not seeking offers for the property at this stage of the process.

Fix also said an analysis of Harcourt's financial capability will be part of the negotiating process.

"We have not done a full due diligence," Fix said. "We need to do that still. We need to get into their balance sheet."

The port has not committed to Harcourt, and Harcourt has not committed to the port, Fix said.

"We have a lot to learn about them," Fix said. "They have a lot to learn about us. ... They have to figure out if they can make money on this."

Commissioner Mike McAuley said he wanted commissioners to be kept informed during the 120-day negotiating period. Fix promised to do that.

"We'll keep you informed every step of the way," Fix said. "And we'll ask for direction."

Fix said he expected company representatives to come to Bellingham to meet commissioners and community members while the negotiations are in progress.

Fix noted that Harcourt's preliminary proposal to the port was drafted before the port and city completed a waterfront master plan and zoning regulations for the dormant area where Georgia-Pacific Corp. once made pulp and tissue paper, and Harcourt will need to come up with a redevelopment plan that fits those limits.

Harcourt's highest-profile project is the Titanic Quarter in Belfast, Northern Ireland - a large-scale commercial and residential development centered on a Titanic museum, on the site of the shipyard where the ill-fated ocean liner was built.

Reach JOHN STARK at john.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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