Few structures remain from the heyday of the pulp and tissue mill that operated until a decade ago at the heart of Bellingham’s waterfront.
Most of the buildings were taken down after operations ceased in 2007, with an eye on preserving some of the machinery and other elements that could illustrate the history and inner workings of the Georgia-Pacific West mill that once made Angel Soft and Quilted Northern toilet paper.
But few of the buildings themselves were earmarked for preservation.
Architect John Reid believes one of the last survivors – the Board Mill – has the potential to marry the rich history of the working waterfront with a modern upgrade that will put the property back to use as a place to visit, live or pass the time near the water.
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Reid and Harcourt Developments, already working to restore the Granary Building, envision a Board Mill hotel and conference center, with guest rooms, apartments, a spa, a restaurant and bar, and maybe some small shops.
“This is an opportunity to put a striking new building on the waterfront,” Reid said. “These buildings have huge character, particularly with the contrast between the old and new.”
To date, the concept for the Board Mill is to keep the 300-foot-by-70-foot brick and steel building largely how it is, and then construct a new building that would wrap around two sides of the mill.
Rooms in the Board Mill could have an almost industrial feel, he said, while the adjacent building would feel more modern.
Preliminary drawings show the new wrap-around structure about a story taller than the existing brick building. Its roof gradually slants upward toward the bay views, and the walls are made of nearly floor to ceiling windows.
Key to the project would be restoring and maintaining some of the board mill’s unique features, Reid said.
“There are huge windows, and when the external appearance is restored, you’re saving a piece of history, of what was a working waterfront,” Reid said.
Potential for tourism
Though the plans for the hotel are just in the idea stage at this point, the fact the developer is looking to build a large conference center is exciting for those who promote tourism in Whatcom County.
Our hotel inventory has grown substantially in the last few years, which is great, but one of the things still missing is a large meeting convention facility of some kind.
Loni Rahm, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism
“What I love is they are looking at what is the niche that is currently missing,” said Loni Rahm, president and CEO of Bellingham Whatcom County Tourism. “Our hotel inventory has grown substantially in the last few years, which is great, but one of the things still missing is a large meeting convention facility of some kind.”
Bellingham and Whatcom County facilities can fairly easily accommodate groups of about 400 or 500 people, Rahm said, but anything larger than that is hard for one facility to handle.
“We’re considered a third- or fourth-tier meeting destination,” Rahm said. “Right now we cannot compete above a certain size. ... We’ve got lots of event facilities. We’ve got spaces to put people. But we don’t have that one large central facility that can accommodate a large group.”
And building a large conference space wouldn’t only benefit the waterfront, Rahm said.
Say a corporation wants to host a conference for 600 to 1200 people. If the Board Mill hotel has the meeting space for that many people, but only about 150 beds, then people would stay at various places throughout the city or county, Rahm said.
“Now all of a sudden, you’ve impacted five or six hotels because you’ve brought in a group that is large enough that one hotel can’t accommodate them,” Rahm said. “This is really important for our growth.”
Plans not certain
To develop the Board Mill, Harcourt still has to clear a few more hurdles, including negotiating a purchase price with the Port of Bellingham and obtaining permission to develop that area from the Port Commission.
The Board Mill is currently in the 6-acre footprint set aside for Western Crossing Development, a nonprofit corporation created by Western Washington University in 2009 to allow for private/public partnership on the waterfront and enable the university to buy waterfront property.
Western Crossing’s board gave permission to move the building out of its footprint on Wednesday, May 4.
The day before that, port commissioners gave Harcourt a six-month extension to apply for permits for the second building it is required to build under the development agreement that gives Harcourt first dibs to buy and develop nearly 19 acres on the waterfront.
If and when the firm negotiates a deal with the port and gets permission to work in that area, it could start preparing for a late 2017 construction start.
Working to restore old buildings often brings significant challenges and cost, which is likely part of the reason Western Crossing was not interested in taking on the mill.
“A lot of people don’t like old buildings,” Reid said. “They’re full of surprises, and they’re very expensive.”
But Harcourt has the experience and passion for working on historic restorations, Reid said.
One example is the four-star Titanic Hotel in Liverpool, a warehouse that was in a completely derelict area that is now a successful hotel, Reid said.
“It’s always going to be cheaper to build a new building,” he said. “They take on risk projects that can be a catalyst for change.”
The 1946 Board Mill building on Bellingham’s waterfront, with its flat roof and concrete floors, hasn’t housed equipment for quite some time.
If you come to Bellingham and have to choose between a waterfront hotel or not, I think the choice is clear, if the price is right.
John Reid, architect working with Harcourt Developments
At the time of a 2004 due diligence report completed for the Port of Bellingham, most of the equipment in the building had been removed and the space was being used as a warehouse and shop with a break room area.
In 2009, a consultant from Seattle told the Port of Bellingham that holding onto the Board Mill and a few other structures would be a good idea, in the hopes that as the economy improved, the buildings’ restoration or conversion might become possible.
Harcourt and Reid think that time has come.
“If you come to Bellingham and have to choose between a waterfront hotel or not, I think the choice is clear, if the price is right,” Reid said.
OLD BUILDINGS CAME DOWN
Last year, Bellingham watched as two more buildings were demolished, with the especially spectacular crashing down of the chip bins from the digester building. That demolition was done with care to preserve the massive digester tanks that remain standing in place and can be reused for industrial artwork on the site.