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New maritime festival coming to Bellingham to celebrate waterfront

Ships docked and stored in the Whatcom Creek Waterway off W​est​ Chestnut St​reet​.//Photo by Kesia Lee

Seafood and maritime enthusiasts alike have a new but unnamed waterfront and seafood festival to look forward to this fall thanks to a $75,000 award from the Lodging Tax Advisory Committee.

The festival was one of 18 proposals heard by the Committee, and the decision to select it as Bellingham’s new signature event was not an easy one, Lodging Tax Advisory Committee Chair Pinky Vargas said.

“Part of the reason the Bellingham waterfront festival was chosen was that it had more of a sense of place,” Vargas said. “It really integrated what we were trying to portray as the city of Bellingham.”

Activities could include fish filleting and oyster slurping contests, oceanic poetry slams and sea shanty performances at downtown restaurants and bars, head coordinator of the event Debbie Granger said. The festival is inspired by other Northwest events, such as Issaquah Salmon Days and the FisherPoets Gathering in Astoria, Oregon.

Granger imagines the whole city taking part in the festivities, with activities stretching from the Bellingham marina all the way to Fairhaven.

Ideas are currently being tossed around, Granger said, including an event where fishermen donate their catch to be sold to attendants, where the proceeds would then be donated to charity. The festival is still highly conceptual, Granger said.

The Lodging Tax Advisory Committee is an organization that redistributes tax revenue from hotels and lodgings in Bellingham to promote tourism. The Lodging Tax Advisory Committee helps support local events every year such as the Bellingham Festival of Music and the Bellingham Bay Marathon.

However, in recent years, councilwoman Vargas said the Committee has had its mind set on something bigger.

“The signature event program was hatched in concept between one and two years ago,” said Tara Sundin, community and economic development manager for the city. “The tourism commission wanted to fund projects that they felt the community really need.”

Controversy has long surrounded the strip of land left by the Georgia Pacific pulp and tissue mill due to mercury contamination from the old chemical plant.

“What we want to do is showcase the whole fishing and maritime industry,” said Pete Granger, event co-planner.

“It’s much more important economically than people think in Whatcom County and other parts of the state,” Granger said.

These facts were not lost on the panel choosing Bellingham’s new signature event, and the city’s struggle to reclaim its waterfront was a factor in the Committee’s decision, Vargas said.

“We’ve had a historical tie to the Salish Sea for a long time but it’s not something we talk about very much,” Vargas said. “We feel that this is an element that’s missing in our culture. But we are working on our waterfront and we want to people to know that we are on the bay; we are on the waterfront.”

The Grangers encourage community input, particularly from Western students. They can be reached at debgranger@comcast.

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