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Port official ponders new use for Bellingham waterfront space

Port of Bellingham Commissioner Mike McAuley, center, leads a tour of the lignin building at the former Georgia-Pacific waterfront site in Bellingham, Tuesday Nov. 3, 2015. McAuley wants to convert the 50,000-square-foot building into an exposition center.
Port of Bellingham Commissioner Mike McAuley, center, leads a tour of the lignin building at the former Georgia-Pacific waterfront site in Bellingham, Tuesday Nov. 3, 2015. McAuley wants to convert the 50,000-square-foot building into an exposition center. The Bellingham Herald

Port of Bellingham Commissioner Mike McAuley wants to jump-start some economic activity on the waterfront by refurbishing what’s been an underused warehouse.

On Tuesday, Nov. 3, McAuley gave a tour of the 50,000-square-foot building to a group of citizens, including many tied to the local tourism industry, to get feedback on whether it’s feasible to convert it to an expo center. The building was formerly home to GP’s lignin packaging operation and is near the Opportunity Council building at 1111 Cornwall Ave.

McAuley said the original plan was to tear down the building, but the port has changed course and is looking at ways to keep it for now, including using it as a warehouse.

It hasn’t received much interest as a warehouse, however, so McAuley wanted to see if it would be worth the effort to clean up the space and market it as a place for large conferences or events. He noted there aren’t many large conference options inside Bellingham’s city limits, but added that it wouldn’t pencil out unless it could regularly host events.

Some of those who were on the tour were intrigued by the possibility, including Janet Lightner of Boundary Bay Brewery.

“There are so many ideas that we can do but we’re limited by the weather,” Lightner said, noting that’s the case for beer and many nonprofit events that tend to end up with outdoor venues because of size. She added that if inclement weather is taken out of the equation by being indoors, it could lead to extending some events. That could mean more tourism money coming into the area.

It also could lead to opportunities in the outdoor recreation industry, said Todd Elsworth, executive director of Recreation Northwest. Elsworth has organized some expos, including one for Recreation Northwest, and said there is potential to grow these events by having a space that can accommodate large booths.

He noted that outdoor recreation continues to gain in popularity in this area, and bringing more exposure to this area through expos can help not only economically in terms of tourism, but with business-to-business networking.

After getting some feedback, McAuley said he plans to bring the idea back to the Port Commission for further consultation. If the expo plan takes hold, he believes the building could be ready at a minimal level in 2016 and be a more full-service center in 2017.

He added that an expo center could be a tangible item for the public to see as the port continues to redevelop the waterfront. Other parts of the waterfront, such as redevelopment of the area around the Granary building, will take time.

“This is a possible low-hanging fruit to make it part of the downtown,” McAuley said.

Reach Dave Gallagher at 360-715-2269 or dave.gallagher@bellinghamherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BhamHeraldBiz and on Facebook at BellinghamHeraldBusiness.

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