Hoping to convince the Port of Bellingham to give up its option to buy the property on Roeder Avenue, the site of a proposed homeless shelter, the City of Bellingham is offering $300,000 and other incentives.
“This was a way for us to continue the conversation with the port about what we can do as a city to help support what they want, which is to have a strong, successful working waterfront,” said Vanessa Blackburn, spokeswoman for the mayor’s office.
Mayor Kelli Linville wants to put an easy-access shelter for 200 men and women on city-owned property at 801/807 Roeder Ave., which is now leased to five businesses working in marine trades. They would need to move by May 2018, but the city has offered to cut their rent by up to 90 percent until then.
The port has an option to buy the property, for $775,000. That agreement came through a previous land swap between the two entities.
The shelter is being opposed by the Working Waterfront Coalition of Whatcom County and others who said those who are homeless should be helped, but not in that location. They said they feared that harm would be done to area businesses and waterfront redevelopment efforts.
“We realize that the members of the Working Waterfront Coalition and others are concerned about displacement of business and losing area for marine trades. We share this concern and would like to see businesses relocated to an area at the port where they can not only thrive, but expand,” Linville said in a news release.
The city is working with the port to retain those businesses and find new locations for them.
Bellingham offered the incentives to the port after the City Council voted 5-1 on Monday to do so. Council member Dan Hammill was absent, while Gene Knutson voted no.
Knutson said he supported having an easy-access shelter, but not at that location.
“This has been a very controversial situation right from the beginning. I think we need to find a more suitable location that can work out for everybody,” Knutson said, adding he also was concerned the costs related to the proposed shelter were starting to add up.
Linville and city staff have been searching for more than a year to find the right location – away from residential neighborhoods and retail business districts and preferably in an industrial area – for such a shelter, which would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week to offer people a place to stay and sleep instead of the city’s streets and doorways.
The shelter would be a collaboration with Lighthouse Mission Ministries, which would raise $1.5 million to renovate the largest building on the site to turn it into a shelter and to pay for operations. The city would provide $180,000 a year to support emergency night shelter services.
City officials have said the 1 acre of waterfront property is the best location. Port commissioners haven’t made a decision about relinquishing the option to buy the property, but don’t seem to be enthusiastic about the idea.
The matter will go before the Port Commission next Tuesday.
“It will be a full discussion of the option and the city’s offer,” said Mike Hogan, spokesman for the Port of Bellingham.
Hogan didn’t comment further.
The city is offering:
▪ $300,000 to help the port make improvements to property for working waterfront businesses.
▪ Use of the Chestnut Street right-of-way, adding about 9,000 square feet to the port’s existing property, a value of about $90,000.
▪ Security fencing around the perimeter of the proposed shelter.
▪ Increased financial support to the Lighthouse Mission to pay for people to patrol nearby properties and businesses.
▪ Port participation in site planning for the shelter.
▪ Port right of first negotiation to buy the property if it is no longer leased to the Lighthouse Mission or another provider serving people in need.
Easy-access shelters have minimum requirements for entry, so people aren’t tested for drug or alcohol use before being allowed in, although they can’t drink or use drugs once inside. Fighting isn’t allowed either.
The goal is to get people through the door, give staff a chance to connect with them, and build trust so those who are homeless are willing to get services.
Lighthouse Mission already has been operating a smaller, easy-access shelter on a temporary basis in Old Town.
The proposed shelter would be near Lighthouse Mission’s existing buildings, and city officials have said that proximity was an important factor.
Homelessness has been increasing in Whatcom County in recent years. About 719 people are without homes – a 10 percent increase over the previous year, according to a 2016 report that provided an overview of homelessness.