The Port of Bellingham’s future resides in the upcoming Nov. 2 election, as candidates for the District 1 seat are laying their visions for its development.
After years of dealing with intermittent redevelopment and contamination in Bellingham Bay following the closure of the long-time pulp mill Georgia-Pacific West, Bellingham’s port is receiving some love and care. The shipping terminal is being modernized, and environmental projects are underway.
District 1 of the Port encompasses much of Bellingham, Western Washington University and southern Whatcom County. This leaves it in charge of large sections of Bellingham’s Waterfront District.
Covering a broad range of responsibilities, the Port of Bellingham’s mission statement is to promote sustainable economic development while optimizing its transportation gateways and manage publicly owned land and facilities, from the airport to the waterfront.
Michael Shepard, incumbent District 1 commissioner, believes that the mission of the Port is to provide more economic initiatives for the community while retaining Whatcom’s existing employers and expanding to new ones to diversify the employment sector.
“That’s the work we’ve done since I began and the work we’ll continue to do,” Shepard said.
Shepard was elected to the commission in 2017 and has lived in Bellingham for over 25 years. He is also a professor in Western’s anthropology department.
About 7% of the workforce in Whatcom County is directly tied to the marine trades industry. While this accounts for over 6,000 jobs, not a large percentage is committed to the shipping terminal.
“We don’t have a super active shipping terminal because it wasn’t invested in in the past 20 years,” Shepard said. “It was left to deteriorate a bit, we lost utilization and regular shipping contracts, and those union longshoreman jobs disappeared within our community.”
Bringing back the kinds of family-wage jobs that may have gone by the wayside in Whatcom County is something that District 1 challenger John Huntley considers his primary motivation.
“I’ve lived here all of my life and I’ve seen the [Georgia-Pacific] plant go away and that was literally thousands of jobs, and now I see Alcoa losing 700 jobs with a multiplier effect of four,” Huntley said. “We need to bring in those high-paying jobs.”
Huntley is the owner and CEO of Mills Electric in Bellingham and wants to use the unique location of Whatcom County to promote more economic activity.
“We cannot rely on being a community of restaurants and bars if we want a sustainable economy in Whatcom County,” he said. “If we get the port going with import and export, those are high-paying jobs right there. I would love to bring back longshoreman jobs in the fishing industry.”
In 2021 alone, the Port invested over $20 million into Whatcom County. The most significant capital investment was the modernization of the Bellingham Shipping Terminal’s infrastructure.
“In 2020 the Port secured a $6.85 million grant for the barge receiving and loading facility,” said Mike Hogan, public affairs administrator for the Port of Bellingham. “Modernizing and maintaining the Port’s shipping infrastructure is expensive, but it remains the Port’s greatest potential job-creating asset.”
Hogan said that while Bellingham’s shipping terminal can’t handle modern cargo ships, it is well-suited for handling certain break-bulk cargo, like cars, grain, lumber and even rocks to be used in the construction of bridges.
These smaller, break-bulk cargo containers will begin to look more attractive for firms following the construction of the new M-5 coastal highway recently announced by the Department of Transportation.
The new coastal route will connect the Pacific Ocean to commercial ports and harbors, from Bellingham near the Canadian border to Southern Oregon and San Diego.
“It can in the long-term help alleviate some of the congestion elsewhere and make our port an attractive destination for that type of commerce,” Shepard said.
Shepard said the rub with shipping is that some people don’t want to see more boats in our harbor, and there are concerns about vessel traffic and the effect on wildlife, particularly salmon and orca.
“But if those ships aren’t coming here and bringing that revenue and employment, they’re going to go somewhere else,” he said.
Investment in environmental sustainability has been one of the Port’s largest projects in recent years, from cleaning up historic contaminated sites around Bellingham Bay to transitioning to 100% clean energy in its facilities.
One of the methods that the Port has utilized to make commerce more environmentally sustainable is the usage of “shore power,” an alternative source of maritime energy where ships connect via an extension cord to the power at the terminal grid, instead of letting their diesel generators continue to run.
Huntley said that if we continue to work with the regulations that we have in place the negative environmental impacts won’t be there, but it remains a delicate balancing act.
The Port of Bellingham is represented by a board of three elected commissioners. The positions are non-partisan, and each serve four-year terms representing three Whatcom County districts.
Jonathan Tall (he/him) started pursuing journalism at Western after getting his degree in Economics and Political Science. Interested in everything from international politics to environmental issues, you can find him reporting on city news or at the gym failing to deadlift way more than he’s able to.
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