A private developer wants to invest more than $30 million in a waterfront hotel, but two Port of Bellingham commissioners don’t want to accept the offer without more planning.
The potential holdup comes after more than a decade of talks and planning for rebuilding the Bellingham waterfront, and just as the first project – remodeling the Granary Building – gets underway.
Harcourt Developments, the Ireland-based firm with permission to invest in the first 19 acres of the contaminated waterfront, and architect John Reid have proposed converting the vacant Board Mill building on the central waterfront into a hotel and conference center.
But during an almost two-hour conversation about the waterfront development during a Tuesday, June 21, meeting, Commissioners Mike McAuley and Bobby Briscoe said they wanted to see high-wage jobs created in that area. They said it would take more planning before the Board Mill hotel concept could move forward, if at all.
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“The two people who have the power to open up the pathway to development are blocking it,” Reid said in a later interview.
In 2015, the Port Commission agreed to let Harcourt get to work on the first portion of the former Georgia-Pacific pulp and tissue mill site.
The firm started renovating the Granary Building this month, and needs to start the permitting process for a second building this year under the terms of a development agreement with the Port.
For the second structure, Reid and Harcourt proposed putting $30 million to $40 million into the Board Mill and a new wrap-around building on two sides of that structure.
However, the Board Mill is currently in a 6-acre footprint set aside for Western Crossing Development, a nonprofit corporation created by Western Washington University in 2009 to allow for private/public partnership on the waterfront and to enable the university to buy waterfront property.
To move ahead with the Board Mill, the firm had to get permission from Western Crossing to move the building out of its footprint.
On May 4, the Western Crossing board signed off on a plan by Port staff to move the university’s footprint south. It takes about 3 acres away from an area set aside for light industrial development, but it also converts 4 acres to industrial elsewhere.
For that change to effect, the Port Commission has to sign off on it, and Briscoe and McAuley made it clear they did not want to do that.
Wind at your back
Enter Tuesday night’s conversation.
McAuley pointed to an agreement with the city that says the port and city should, by policy, create high-quality, high-skill, high-paying jobs on the waterfront.
“Other than SEIU jobs, which are service employee jobs, basically janitors, a conference center doesn’t rise to that level,” McAuley said, adding, “If we believe that the conference center is an anchor for a business campus, then that’s a conversation I’m willing to have.”
Briscoe said he wants to see more than one proposal for the Board Mill building.
“When GP shut down, we lost a lot of jobs and they were good, union-paying jobs. I feel it’s this commission’s duty to Whatcom County, who elected us and who owns this property ... that we try and put as many good-paying jobs back on the ground there as possible,” Briscoe said. “I would like to see more than one proposal for that building.”
I mean what are you going to do with the site? Are you going to put it in a glass bowl and hope industrial jobs come back? It’s unrealistic.
John Reid, architect working with Harcourt Developments
Developers are going to build what they see in demand, said Rob Fix, Port executive director.
“They see a demand for hotel and residential,” Fix said.
That, McAuley said, gets back to a fundamental question for him.
“If the outcomes are only what the private sector was going to come up with on its own without the port involvement, why was there port involvement?” McAuley asked.
Robbins pointed out that after 12 years of planning and work since the Port acquired the GP property in 2004, cleanup and development were getting started, and moving 3 acres out of a roughly 52-acre industrial area didn’t seem like a big deal.
“We finally have something going on here, and we finally have the wind at our back,” Robbins said.
Well there’s been a lot of shipwrecks with a full sail of wind. I’d prefer to sail a little more cautiously than just saying OK let’s go.
Port Commissioner Bobby Briscoe
“Well there’s been a lot of shipwrecks with a full sail of wind,” Briscoe said. “I’d prefer to sail a little more cautiously than just saying OK let’s go.”
Briscoe said he wouldn’t say that no development should happen there, but the port has the mandate to create good-paying jobs.
“I have trouble with everything going as fast as it has come up,” Briscoe said.
On Thursday, Reid said he was shocked by Tuesday’s meeting.
“It is simply bizarre and it is impossible for us to understand,” Reid said. “Briscoe thought it was going too fast, and secondly McAuley wants more process after 12 years. I mean what are you going to do with the site? Are you going to put it in a glass bowl and hope industrial jobs come back? It’s unrealistic.”
Harcourt is ready to go forward with the Board Mill hotel and submit it for permitting later in the year, Reid said, but the conversation on Tuesday left him unclear on what the next steps should be.
“I’m left with a confused message from the Port,” Reid said. “What you need in a community like this is leadership, some courage to go forward with things the way the community wants it.”
McAuley, also reached Thursday, said his main goal had been to ensure that the Port would stick with the development agreement that was signed in 2015.
“I feel by saying we aren’t adjusting the (agreement) right now, we have a clear answer: stick to the original agreement,” McAuley said. “Keep focusing on what you thought you were signing on for.”
Robbins, also reached Thursday, said that he was disappointed that the other commissioners didn’t want to accomodate Harcourt’s request.
“We have a developer in town that’s really going strong right now,” Robbins siad. “I just thought it was a small accomodation. When Bobby said we were moving too fast, I couldn’t believe it. Twelve years that’s been a brownfield, and he’s saying we’re moving too fast. Are you kidding me?”
Robbins mentioned that his grandfather put up some of the original capital that started the Puget Sound Pulp and Timber mill, the predecessor to GP, and his dad worked there for 40 years.
“It was great to have a job at the pulp mill. I’m all for industry, but we’ve gone 12 years with no industry and not being able to attract any industry to our shipping terminal,” Robbins said. “That doesn’t mean I want to turn it all into condos, that just means to me giving up 3 acres isn’t that big a deal.”
Briscoe did not return a call seeking follow-up comment.
Port spokesman Mike Hogan said that Harcourt had not yet submitted its official plan for the hotel or its second building.
“This proposal is not due until November 2016,” he said, “and Port staff plan to work closely with Harcourt to make sure their proposal is acceptable to the Port Commission.”