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Community idea for Bellingham waterfront would address housing need, aid food industry

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After years of cleanup and preparation, Bellingham is ready to open its new downtown waterfront park, called Waypoint Park.
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After years of cleanup and preparation, Bellingham is ready to open its new downtown waterfront park, called Waypoint Park.

A community-based idea for a waterfront project is gaining momentum that could result in more affordable housing and help for the local food industry.

At a Port of Bellingham Commissioner meeting on Tuesday, April 23, Mauri Ingram suggested a food campus be built in the waterfront district once home to Georgia-Pacific.

Ingram, president and CEO of the Whatcom Community Foundation, said that a wide range of local organizations has expressed interest in the project, including the Community Food Co-op, Bellingham Food Bank and the Opportunity Council. Next to the food campus would be a residential building, with one idea being floated as a seven-story mixed-use structure with five levels of apartment units.

After the presentation all three port commissioners appeared enthusiastic about the concept, directing staff to pursue the ideas further.

In an email, Port Commissioner Michael Shepard said he is eager to pursue the collaboration for several reasons: It helps fulfill a desire to have affordable housing in the waterfront district and it creates jobs while helping other local employers.

“This investment will create the excitement we need at the waterfront to spur accelerated build-out of the district,” Shepard said.

Up to this point, the port and city have worked with developer Harcourt, which restored the Granary building and is in the process of starting several other projects.

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The Whatcom Community Foundation has proposed the former Georgia-Pacific lignin packaging building near the Opportunity Council building on Cornwall Avenue become a food campus for local businesses that would include affordable housing. Dave Gallagher The Bellingham Herald

Details for the food campus and affordable housing proposal, which is generally known as The Millworks, include:

Food campus

The food campus idea is in the very early stages of planning but could come together quickly, with construction possibly happening next year.

It is being proposed at the former Georgia-Pacific lignin packaging building near the Opportunity Council building at 1111 Cornwall Ave. That building would be demolished later this year to make way for the food campus, which is expected to be around 40,000 square feet, Ingram said in a phone interview on April 24.

The campus would have a variety of uses, all with the idea of helping the local farms, restaurants, food trucks and stores. Examples include spaces set aside for commercial kitchens, catering services and for Whatcom County farmers who need storage space to create value-added products or supply Bellingham businesses, Ingram said.

Commercial kitchen space is tough to find in Bellingham these days and it is very much in demand, Ingram said. Food trucks, which have become popular in Whatcom County, need separate commercial space for prep work.

Based on research done for this project, Ingram believes a successful food campus in Bellingham could create around 150 jobs.

Housing

The affordable housing part of this project is also in the early stages of planning. The discussion at this point appears to be apartment units that would be affordable for workers, attracting people who might work in the waterfront or downtown districts.

The port started work on this component earlier this year after being awarded a $250,000 grant from the state’s Department of Ecology and Department of Commerce to evaluate housing opportunities on the lignin building site. The grant will also help with some of the cleanup and redevelopment costs, said Mike Hogan, spokesman for the port.

The Department of Ecology has an interest in this project because it would involve cleanup work for an area used for industrial projects. Hogan said the grant will help determine what cleanup actions are necessary for redevelopment.

“Based on our current understanding of the lignin parcel, we anticipate the cleanup requirements will be similar to other areas of the downtown waterfront,” Hogan said.

Timing

The next steps include the community foundation and the port coming to an agreement about what specifically needs to be done. If the demolition and cleanup happen this year, it’s possible that construction activity could happen in 2020. Ingram and others are motivated to get this project moving because it is in an Opportunity Zone investment area, which could lead to further funding.

“2019 is the best year for opportunity zone planning,” Ingram said.

While the foundation is involved in this project, Ingram stressed that it is not handling the details of how to build affordable housing or a food campus, leaving that to the experts in different organizations expressing interest in this project.

“We’re just trying to create the space to make this possible,” Ingram said.

Enthusiasm for this project also appears to be moving things along.

“We decided to lay out a big idea to see what would happen,” Ingram said, adding that she’s been excited by the response.

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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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