Op-Ed

We need a redeveloped waterfront, but not just any waterfront

Former Georgia Pacific buildings have been demolished since this aerial photo was taken of the site on Bellingham Bay in 2013.
Former Georgia Pacific buildings have been demolished since this aerial photo was taken of the site on Bellingham Bay in 2013. The Bellingham Herald

Bellingham’s waterfront is brimming with potential: It is in the heart of the vibrant city of Bellingham, bordered by the beautiful Salish Sea and accessible by many communities in Whatcom County.

After the closure of the Georgia Pacific tissue mill in 2007, the site has been mostly dormant while its future has been debated and shaped. A redevelopment opportunity of this scale does not arise frequently, and we must take advantage of the abundant possibilities to create a clean environment, good jobs and more community opportunities on Bellingham’s waterfront.

A robust discussion about how we ensure a working waterfront and a thriving clean energy economy is absolutely essential, and strong public input will help ensure we achieve the outcomes that will best serve the whole community.

Now that the redevelopment process has begun, the potential for a working waterfront with green jobs feels all the more real. Work on the Granary Building started this summer, and the Port of Bellingham recently announced local solar panel producer Itek Energy plans to expand its manufacturing operations to the waterfront, adding significant new jobs.

This redevelopment process presents us with an opportunity to model how a fair, healthy and prosperous clean energy economy can be built. It is important to take a close look at the proposals and ask challenging questions about whether risks can be minimized and opportunities maximized. We need cleanup, but not just any cleanup. We need jobs, but not just any jobs. We need a redeveloped waterfront, but not just any waterfront.

Community oversight

Most of all, we need to make sure all relevant stakeholders are involved – not just the Port of Bellingham, the city of Bellingham and the developer, but also other community interests, including local tribes, state legislators, the governor’s office and coalitions such as the Blue Green Waterfront Coalition and the Working Waterfront Coalition. All interests should be at the table to make sure community needs are identified and resources are secured to meet them. This is the broad-based oversight our community needs to ensure our waterfront redevelopment continues to deliver on its promise.

Where there’s promise, there’s also risk. Hanging over our waterfront is a dark cloud of uncertainty due to our state’s budget woes, which threaten to undermine available resources for adequate cleanup and the confidence of potential developers, investors and tenants looking to the waterfront for their new home.

The future of the Model Toxics Control Act is in serious doubt, after losing all funding in 2016. The act determines how hazardous waste sites in the state are cleaned up: It provides funding for cleanup, pollution prevention and oversight and community engagement. Right now, it’s essential that our state legislators take seriously the need to provide necessary investment in cleanups and all of the things necessary to ensure cleanups are effective and confidence-inspiring – including infrastructure to prevent future pollution as well as public participation that ensures meaningful oversight.

If the state fails to invest in oversight, we risk the potential of discovering problems with cleanups when it’s too late, after we’ve already spent millions on inadequate restoration projects. It’s crucial we avoid this mistake and make sure Bellingham’s waterfront cleanup moves forward responsibly.

We need more public awareness to ensure our community understands the importance of programs like the Model Toxics Control Act, which helps deliver our shared vision for the waterfront. We must ask our elected officials to support these essential programs.

Living-wage jobs

Finally, we need oversight to ensure waterfront plans prioritize space for the type of tenants our community so desperately needs – tenants committed to creating living-wage jobs, especially in sustainable business.

It’s critical that future waterfront planning preserves and prioritizes space for these kinds of businesses, within the constraints presented by cleanup and habitat restoration needs. Bellingham should see this site, and the investments in it, as a prime opportunity to move away from the low-wage service and retail economy that currently makes up a large portion of our job base. This means preserving industrially zoned land while completing meaningful restoration projects and preserving critical habitat.

While the Port of Bellingham is considering plans for a convention center and hotel on the Bellingham waterfront, there has been less public discussion about the options already materializing on our waterfront – family-sustaining wages in a clean energy economy. A robust discussion about how we ensure a working waterfront and a thriving clean energy economy is absolutely essential, and strong public input will help ensure we achieve the outcomes that will best serve the whole community.

Progress happening now on the waterfront clearly shows there is sufficient promise we can work together to realize. But it is only with the right investments, clear priorities, adequate public engagement and community oversight that we will be able to do this. The Blue Green Waterfront Coalition is calling on our elected leaders to make the right investments in Bellingham’s waterfront. We hope you’ll join us.

Mark Lowry is president of the Northwest Washington Central Labor Council and Judith Akins is president of the Mount Baker Chapter of the Sierra Club. They wrote this for the Blue Green Waterfront Coalition, a member of the Blue Green Alliance in Washington, which advocates for a Bellingham waterfront characterized by the values of a clean environment and economic justice for workers and sustainability.

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