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Port losing patience with pace of WWU plans for waterfront hub for energy and technology classes

Here’s what’s happening on Bellingham’s waterfront

The Port of Bellingham and Harcourt, an Ireland-based developer, have completed several projects on the 137 acres of waterfront property. The port took ownership of the Georgia-Pacific land in 2005 in exchange for taking on its environmental cleanup.
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The Port of Bellingham and Harcourt, an Ireland-based developer, have completed several projects on the 137 acres of waterfront property. The port took ownership of the Georgia-Pacific land in 2005 in exchange for taking on its environmental cleanup.

Commissioners for the Port of Bellingham are growing impatient about what they see as a lack of progress in Western Washington University’s plans for the waterfront.

Port Commissioner Ken Bell led a discussion about the status of the Western Crossing project during a meeting on Feb. 19. He expressed frustration that a document recently submitted to the port by the university showed no progress in the past year to put a major facility on the waterfront.

“I’m not happy with the progress that Western Crossing has made in this regard,” Bell said at the meeting, which is available on YouTube. “And, quite frankly, I’m not convinced today that given the vision that we have for the waterfront and the educational institution, that Western Crossing or Western Washington University can deliver on what we would like to see.”

The commissioners discussed possible alternatives, including possibly ending its partnership with Western on this project and looking for opportunities with other educational institutions. The other two commissioners, Bobby Briscoe and Michael Shepard, appeared to share Bell’s frustration of the slow pace on the project.

“I don’t feel our local university has come to play ball,” Briscoe said at the meeting.

If the port commissioners decide to end the partnership with WWU, they would need to announce their intentions by March 31 or wait another year, according to the commission discussion that took place at the Feb. 19 meeting.

In a phone interview on Feb. 27, Bell was still frustrated by the slow pace of the project but expressed optimism that the Western Crossing project could start moving forward again when he and others meet with Western officials this week.

“We still have a partnership with Western Washington University, but we need to get this done,” Bell said. “If we can’t get it on track, I am looking at other options.”

WWU plans to address the Port’s concerns

Donna Gibbs, vice president for university relations and marketing for Western, said in an interview Feb. 27 that she understands the frustration expressed by the commissioners. She said they plan on addressing those concerns at this week’s meeting.

She said a group has been gathering input both on campus and in the community to put together a vision of what they want to develop, which they would present to Western’s Board of Trustees in June and later to port officials.

Gibbs said part of that vision includes creating a hub for energy, science and technology classes that can also serve as a research center. They are also looking at putting in a performance center. It’s a plan she believes the campus and the community would be excited to get behind.

This plan would satisfy a couple of goals, according to Gibbs: Establishing a presence that supports economic development and having something that is open to the community.

If that vision receives approval, the next step would be to get funding, something that is a challenge. Western would seek state funding, but the next opportunity would be for the 2021-2023 biennium budget, Gibbs said. Other funding sources could come from donors and possibly federal grants.

The idea of Western establishing a presence on the waterfront has been around a long time, stalling at various points along the way. Western and the Port created a non-profit corporation in 2009 for Western Crossing, with the goal of creating a facility that benefited Western students while also being a driver of economic development in the community.

Gibbs said a host of internal and external factors have contributed to the slow pace of the project. Creating Western Crossing in 2009, when the U.S. and world economies were dealing with a financial meltdown the previous year certainly dried up potentially financing for such a project. State funding has not returned to the pre-recession levels and the university has needed money for other projects.

Port commissioners are expected to publicly discuss the Western Crossing further at its Tuesday, March 19, meeting.

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Dave Gallagher has covered the Whatcom County business community since 1998. Retail, real estate, jobs and port redevelopment are among the topics he covers.
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