WWU-Port of Bellingham plan this renewable energy research and development project

In an attempt to jump-start a key waterfront project, two public agencies will soon be reaching out to the private sector.

Officials from the Port of Bellingham and Western Washington University have an outline in place to move forward with the Western Crossing Innovation Park. The Port of Bellingham commissioners approved an amendment in a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 8; the plan is scheduled to go before Western’s Board of Trustees on Friday, Oct. 11.

The plan calls for a public-private partnership where the Port and Western would seek out others, including business start-ups, to “nurture scientific and technological entrepreneurial ventures.” The focus of the park would be renewable energy research and development, according to port documents. Other ideas for the innovation park include cybersecurity and marine engineering.

This is a change from the original 2008 plan where Western Washington University would build a higher education campus on the six acres of the waterfront district. Western is no longer planning classrooms for the waterfront property.

Student involvement could be in the form of applied learning, such as graduate students doing research in public or private labs. Or they could be a resource for companies seeking to hire people with specific degree skills, said Donna Gibbs, vice president for university relations and marketing.

The private-public park is envisioned to be similar to what’s being done in other parts of the world. One example Port Commissioner Ken Bell gave is the McKinstry Innovation Center in Spokane, which focuses on clean-tech, high-tech and life science industries.

Bell and Gibbs are on the Western Crossings working group.

“I think it is a more realistic approach to bring in the private sector,” Bell said, noting that it was taking too long trying to just have public entities develop this project.

The original Western Crossing project was slated for around 6 acres; that might still be the case but it is no longer a requirement, Gibbs said, adding that it could be extended if there is more demand for the park.

Also new with this plan is a timeline. The goal is to establish a Port/WWU development team next year to develop partnership proposals, with some permitting/design work being done in 2021 and construction starting in 2022.

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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.