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Saving old pulp mill icons on Bellingham waterfront will be costly

Large steel pulp tanks sit inside the digester building at the former Georgia-Pacific West Inc. site in Bellingham, shown on April 16, 2009. The pulp and tissue paper mill employed as many as 1,200 people at its peak.
Large steel pulp tanks sit inside the digester building at the former Georgia-Pacific West Inc. site in Bellingham, shown on April 16, 2009. The pulp and tissue paper mill employed as many as 1,200 people at its peak. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Turning old equipment from the Georgia-Pacific Corp. mill into monuments to waterfront industrial history won't be cheap, City Council members learned Monday, Oct. 14.

Tara Sundin, city economic development manager, told council members that it would likely cost between $1.1 million and $2.7 million to stabilize two big tan ceramic tanks, and to prepare enormous steel pulp digester vessels for use as industrial landmarks as the waterfront is redeveloped.

For many years, port and city officials have said they would like to save the massive old industrial structures to acknowledge the waterfront's industrial past as home to a pulp and tissue paper mill that employed as many as 1,200 people at its peak. As it became less likely that new uses could be found for the mill's old red brick buildings, more attention focused on saving the old tanks and digester vessels as links to the past.

City Council members were clearly unhappy to hear what that would cost.

"This is a game-changer," council member Stan Snapp said.

The old industrial equipment is now the property of the Port of Bellingham, and the city would be on the hook for the expense only if the council decides to take them over and refurbish them for public display. Sundin told the council there is no urgency to that decision, since the waterfront park development that might include the old structures is still years away. But port officials have made it clear they are not interested in spending any money on the project, Sundin added.

City Parks Director James King explained that the two tan ceramic tanks - one thin, the other squat - are covered in ceramic tiles that are beginning to fall off. The tiles would have to be regrouted and screwed down to make them safe enough to be near people.

One of the tanks held wood chips, but the other held bleach and would need to be cleaned out.

King also noted that the tanks and the digester vessels are seated on pilings that have yet to be inspected. Besides the initial rehabilitation cost of millions of dollars, the tanks and vessels would require regular maintenance costs, King said.

Council member Michael Lilliquist said he is thinks the old structures likely would add a unique touch to the waterfront that would make surrounding property more valuable. He asked Sundin to try to provide some estimate of those benefits.

"I guess the port is deciding they have no value," Lilliquist said. "We're trying to decide if they do have value."

Other council members were less enthusiastic.

"They're cool and fascinating, I get that," Cathy Lehman said. "These are really expensive propositions we're talking about."

Snapp agreed.

"It's appealing because we like the looks of them, but that's not a reason to take on this liability for the city," Snapp said.

Weiss, who has been the strongest advocate for finding a way to reuse the old brick G-P buildings, was skeptical about the structures. He said the buildings potentially could be converted to new uses that would generate revenue, but the old structures would never pay for themselves.

"These will be simply to look at ... unless we can put a big curtain around them and charge people to look," he said.

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