Jim Talbot left 'huge legacy' in Bellingham, but his biggest deal was with Soviets

A prominent Seattle resident who had a profound impact on the Bellingham community is also being remembered for his role in the regional commercial fishing industry.

Jim Talbot died Nov. 29 at the age of 87. Talbot was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2007 and battled it until his death. He never lived in Bellingham but was here so often he considered it a home and was proud of his involvement in the community, said his son, Stowe Talbot.

While he played a key role in the growth of the Bellingham Cold Storage facility and oversaw the development of the Barkley urban village, perhaps Jim Talbot’s biggest accomplishment was something very few U.S. diplomats could even attempt — reaching an agreement for a joint seafood venture with the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War. The venture became known as the U.S.-USSR Marine Resources Company.

“I think Jim helped us realize that we are part of a global economy,” said Tim Douglas, who was the Bellingham mayor from 1984 to 1995, a period Talbot was particularly involved in the community. “He was an incredible person who also left a huge legacy in Bellingham.”

Talbot was known for being the idea guy for many of his ventures, and it took that kind of creativity and audacity to pursue a partnership plan with America’s biggest rival. According to Stowe, Jim Talbot came up with the idea in the early 1970s while thinking about new revenue sources for Bellingham Cold Storage.

It was a prickly time for the West Coast fishing industry, as U.S. Sen. Warren Magnuson was proposing legislation to establish a 200-mile “exclusive economic zone” for U.S. waters that would become a part of the Magnuson Act in 1976.

The passage of this legislation meant the Soviet fishing fleet would need help if it wanted fish from the U.S. West Coast. Talbot decided to write a letter to the Soviet Ministry of Fisheries, proposing a joint company that would hire American boats to catch and deliver fish to the Soviet fleet, allowing the Soviets to continue to process this fish around U.S. territorial waters.

It took two years of writing letters before Talbot received a cable requesting he come to Moscow.

Stew Thomas, who first met Talbot in 1965 and oversaw operations of Bellingham Cold Storage as president from 1987 to 2000, said the joint partnership was one of the craziest ideas he had ever heard, given the political climate at the time.

“I thought the fishermen would get mad at us for even proposing the idea,” he said.

The idea turned out to be beneficial to U.S. commercial fishermen, because they now had a steady customer. The joint venture helped hundreds of fishermen in the area, as well as Bellingham businesses that sold the necessary supplies and equipment to the Soviet fleet.

It was a large operation; some who could see the fleet from the coast remarked that it looked like a floating city, Stowe Talbot said.

For several years the Marine Resources Company was the largest buyer of hake and pollock in the world, according to Stowe.

Given the political climate, it probably wasn’t surprising that the Soviets were difficult negotiators, Stowe said, but they always followed through with what they agreed to do.

Despite the tension surrounding government relations, Jim Talbot viewed it strictly as a business deal, said Stew’s son Doug Thomas, who is the current president of Bellingham Cold Storage.

“He never let the politics of the time interfere with the negotiations,” said Doug Thomas, adding that this style helped many people realize that it was worth looking beyond the stereotypes of the time. “Many people learned that neither of us (Americans and Russians) were what was being portrayed at the time.”

While it was his dad, Archibald Talbot, who started Bellingham Cold Storage in 1946, Jim Talbot was involved in a crucial expansion period from the 1960s through 2000. The company began attracting other processing businesses to the facility in the 1970s, leading to the expansion of BCS to the Orchard Drive area in 1979.

Jim Talbot originally had acquired the Barkley property with the intention of making it an industrial area because it was near the former Chicago Milwaukee Railway. However the railroad removed the tracks, and the city rezoned the area for commercial and residential uses. The property was left undeveloped for nearly two decades before Talbot came up with the urban village idea in the mid-1990s.

Stowe said the idea was greeted with a bit of skepticism at first, but Jim Talbot’s persistence convinced city officials to go ahead with the plan.

“What impressed me was that he had a high-standard, quality plan,” Douglas said. “We were excited about the vision.”

The use of bricks and the concentration of buildings fit within Talbot’s vision of what he wanted, said Jeff Kochman, president of the Barkley Company. He added that Talbot was always coming up with ways to improve the project.

“He’d push and ask the questions to see if there was an alternative solution to a problem,” Kochman said. “He would test the current thinking of time.”

Even 20 years after beginning the Barkley project, it’s still evolving. Kochman said they were presented with plenty of opportunities to develop the area at a faster pace by selling off parcels to other developers, but Talbot chose not to, reasoning that there was more satisfaction in completing the entire project.

“He was definitely a businessman forever. He saw his role in that,” Kochman said.

Talbot also had plenty of business ideas that didn’t pan out. Those included a travel company that took people to the Soviet Union and an aquaculture company in Hawaii. Doug Thomas remembers a time when Talbot had the grandiose idea of creating an annual sailboat event that would rival the America’s Cup.

“He was very much a visionary, and his ideas were not always related to making a profit,” Doug Thomas said.

More often the business idea would pan out, even if it took a while for others to see the opportunity.

“Sometimes he was the only one who liked the idea,” Kochman said, “but he kept talking about it and eventually it started to make sense.”