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The new food campus location will be downtown at the former Georgia-Pacific lignin building on Cornwall Ave. // Photo by Ella Banken

By Teya Heidenreich

The Whatcom Community Foundation and the Port of Bellingham are creating growth opportunities for local food organizations through a local food campus and affordable housing project called The Millworks.

The project will use the three-acre site of the lignin packaging warehouse in the waterfront district that will soon be demolished.

Brian Gouran, director of environmental programs for the Port of Bellingham, said the project's next steps are demolition of the warehouse and to conduct environmental work to rule out contamination on the site. 

“In the next couple weeks, we should start seeing the building start to come down,” Gouran said.

In April 2019, Mauri Ingram, president and CEO of the Whatcom Community Foundation, pitched The Millworks project to the Port of Bellingham. 

The Whatcom Community Foundation is a charitable organization that connects people and resources to encourage philanthropy, according to their website

Ingram defined a food campus as a platform for members of the local food system like farmers, value-added producers, food buyers and educators. She said the food campus would be a place for these components of the food system to come together. They could benefit from office and production space, proximity to other food organizations and access to centralized transportation and farmers’ markets. 

The Agricultural Marketing Resource Center defines value-added agriculture as processes that increase the value of agricultural commodities, like milling wheat into flour. 

“Often what happens, especially with really smaller producers, is that they're trucking their own product in, and that means that they're not actually spending time on the farm or in their own production facility,” Ingram said. “Another [use] will be for start-up businesses. They may need a space that they can just use part of the time that they can't afford to own.”

Ingram said when the Whatcom Community Foundation approached the port about the project, they said they loved it and would like to see more density and activity on the site.

“We had some other ideas in different areas, like affordable housing, that had been percolating for a while,” Ingram said. “So we just re-examined the site with the possibility of just doing more there and co-locating more things.”

Laura Plaut is the executive director of Common Threads Farm, which connects kids to healthy food and is one of the planned partners for the food campus.

Plaut said their office is a portable building on the Whatcom Middle School campus, meaning they don’t have reliable access to kitchens, food storage or even running water. They rely on their partnership with the middle school for those things.

“The potential to have access to the caliber of facility that is being imagined would really be a game changer for us,” she said.

Ingram said they aim to stay informed about the needs of the groups they’re working with, and the Millworks project is a collaboration with all of them.

“They've also done a really fantastic job of reaching out to stakeholders all along the way to make sure that the vision was one that was actually going to serve the community,” Plaut said.

The affordable housing aspect of The Millworks project wasn't grouped with the food campus at first, but developed alongside it, Gouran said. The two projects started out separately until the Whatcom Community Foundation approached the port. 

When the port first identified the Lignin Parcel as a potential affordable housing site, that was a couple years ago, Gouran said.

The Whatcom Community Foundation will use the soon-to-be demolished lignin warehouse for the Millworks project. // Photo by Ella Banken

At that time, the Washington State Department of Ecology approached the port about potential sites to use its Healthy Housing grant. 

“A grant the department of ecology called an Integrated Planning Grant looked at sites undergoing environmental clean up that could potentially be affordable housing eligible,” Gouran said. The Department of Ecology gave the port the grant for development of the lignin parcel in early 2019.

The port took action to further The Millworks project at its meeting on Feb. 18. They entered into a contract with RMC Architects to evaluate the site.

“We've hired them to help us evaluate the site a little bit further and say, OK, what environmental conditions are there that we need to address?” Gouran said. “Can you help us with the site layout? How could you have a food campus and affordable housing? What would that look like?”

The status of this on Feb. 24, according to Gouran, was that the contract had begun creation, circulation and execution. 

“Very late 2020 or ideally very early 2021, we would be able to actually get in the dirt and start doing some work,” Ingram said.

Other potential components of The Millworks as outlined in Ingram’s presentation included office condominiums, a center to support employee ownership and child care facilities.

Ingram said businesses, farmworker organizations, nonprofits and educators would be among the groups mixing together in the space. She said these groups crossing paths and having conversations would yield a healthier, more vibrant local food system.

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