Unions, environmentalists call for living-wage jobs on Bellingham waterfront

Part of the Bellingham waterfront, including Whatcom Waterway in the foreground and the wastewater treatment lagoon, looking down from Western Washington University March 15, 2013 in Bellingham.
Part of the Bellingham waterfront, including Whatcom Waterway in the foreground and the wastewater treatment lagoon, looking down from Western Washington University March 15, 2013 in Bellingham. THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM - Environmentalists and labor union members are joining forces to stress the need for rigorous cleanup and living-wage jobs on the waterfront.

At a Thursday, March 21, public hearing on waterfront plans conducted by the city planning commission, it was clear that the two groups had made a conscious decision not to let their bitter dispute over a Cherry Point coal terminal get in the way of an alliance on other issues.

"I think that labor and environmental groups tend to see eye to eye in most cases," said Crina Hoyer, executive director of RE Sources for Sustainable Communities. "Cherry Point has certainly divided us, and that's not going to change ... but we can agree to push for the same things on the waterfront. ... I'm really interested in the community holding the port accountable for the kinds of jobs and industries they recruit."

Hoyer said she didn't want to see a "Bellwetheresque" development on the central waterfront, referring to the hotel complex on Port of Bellingham property near Squalicum Harbor.

Local labor leaders have been supportive of SSA Marine's proposal for the Gateway Pacific Terminal project at Cherry Point, saying that Whatcom County needs the temporary construction jobs as well as the smaller long-term payroll the coal export pier is expected to create. Environmental group leaders have argued that more and better jobs could be created on the Bellingham waterfront, if coal train traffic to Cherry Point doesn't undermine its attractiveness.

At Thursday's hearing, Hoyer was among many speakers who called on port and city officials to consider the economic benefits to the city as they make key decisions on how the 237-acre industrial site is cleaned up, planned and rezoned.

Betsy Pernotto, a leader of the Jobs With Justice organization, noted that port and city will invest hundreds of millions of dollars in cleaning up toxic industrial contaminants and building streets and utilities. Jobs with attractive wages must be part of the return on that investment, she said.

"Who will reap the benefits of these huge developments?" Pernotto asked. "Tourists? Developers? People who can afford to live on the waterfront?"

She and other speakers called for designation of the waterfront as a "living wage zone."

Bellingham resident Abe Jacobson agreed.

"If we're going to be on the hook for this level of support ... then you (developers) have got to give something back," Jacobson said. "Let's have living wages for Bellingham taxpayers."

Mark Waslohn, representing Machinists Local 2379, called on the planning commission to add waterfront wage standards to the plans before they are passed along to City Council for final approval.

Mark Lowry, president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council, agreed. He noted that the waterfront once provided hundreds of high-wage jobs at the Georgia-Pacific Corp. pulp and paper mill, which shut down the last of its operations in 2007.

"G-P underpinned the economy of this community for generations," Lowry told the commission. "It's been gone for years and nothing has taken its place."

Lowry called on the commission to add "social nuances" to its criteria in evaluating how the waterfront should be redeveloped.

"We consider that a critical return on a major investment," Lowry said.

Then he added a plug for the environment.

"We support our friends in the environmental community and we trust them to look out for our interests," Lowry said. "We want to be able to bring our kids down there and let them play around in the grass."

Trevor Smith of the Laborers Union echoed that view.

"None of us want to do a shoddy job of cleaning up the place where our friends will work and our kids will play," Smith said.

On Friday, March 22, Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix said he shares the desire to create as many good jobs as possible on the waterfront, but he cautioned against taking a regulatory approach that would attempt to dictate to potential employers.

The draft plan now before the planning commission sets aside an industrial area linked to the port's deep-water shipping terminal, and that area could generate the kind of better-paying jobs that people want, Fix said.

He noted that during the past year, Superior Energy Services and Greenberry Industrial had a workforce that peaked at 900 people at work on the Arctic Challenger, an oil spill containment barge for Shell Oil. While he acknowledged that some of those workers were brought in from outside Whatcom County, they spent millions of dollars here.

If the waterfront does attract a high-wage employer such as a software development firm, the employees there will want easy access to restaurants and coffee shops where wages might be comparatively low, Fix said.

"Most of those employees want to go down and get their caffeine," Fix said. "They're not going to want to have to walk a mile to get out of the living-wage zone."

Fix also noted that state and federal funds will pay a significant part of cleanup and infrastructure costs, and state and federal laws will mandate that the workers on those projects get good wages.

Ken Oplinger, president of the Bellingham-Whatcom Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said he was pleased to see that the current version of waterfront plans sets aside the industrial area near the shipping terminal. He predicted that the site would be attractive to high-wage job creators without any need for government wage mandates.

"The last thing that we want is to take this extremely valuable land and invest a lot of money into it and create nothing but service jobs," Oplinger said.


The Bellingham Planning Commission will hold another public hearing on waterfront plans Thursday, March 28, at 7 p.m. in City Council chambers at City Hall, 210 Lottie St.

Read waterfront plans at this City of Bellingham webpage.