A new compass
A NEW COMPASS: A year at the helm of the SS Port of Bellingham, Charlie Sheldon steered the vessel one degree from its plotted course last week, to the displeasure of at least one admiral.
Scott Walker made a motion at the port commission’s regular meeting last week to remove Executive Director Sheldon, hours before Sheldon was to announce a reorganization plan for the agency. Other commissioners greeted Walker’s motion unhappily, itself a subtle yet important shift from the long years in which Walker has been seen as the dominant commissioner. Without support, Walker’s motion stands as his vote of no confidence in the recently hired director, and makes public his feud with Sheldon.
Sheldon, formerly the head of shipping for the Port of Seattle, was hired one year ago in the commission’s second attempt to find a replacement for Director Jim Darling, long a close ally of Walker.
Sheldon’s reorganization plan shifts the agency’s emphasis to economic development and job creation. With the lackluster Bellingham Whatcom Economic Development Council (EDC) imploding and Western Washington University taking a stronger role in the multi-agency Northwest Economic Council, the port is positioning itself in a more central coordinating role in regional economic development, according to Port Commissioner Mike McAuley, who strongly supports the new direction Sheldon is taking the agency. Fellow commissioner Jim Jorgensen also supports the reorganization and redirection.
The change, McAuley said, is more about focusing than course correction, “bolstering the economic development division.”
“My confidence,” he said, “is grounded in the fact that Charlie is doing exactly what we hired him to do.”
In Walker’s 20 years on the commission, the agency has drifted from its central role in developing and maintaining transportation infrastructure necessary for economic vitality to greater emphasis on a portfolio of real estate. That shift reached its zenith in 2004 when the port acquired the Georgia-Pacific mill property with plans to build a luxury yacht marina to leverage up to six-million square feet of condo high rises on the central waterfront. Whatever the merits of that plan, the emphasis on real properties has always placed the port in friction with private development, with the agency holding an advantage as a tax-exempt taxing authority; and it has come at the expense of the agency’s efforts in job creation.
“The original plan that has been working its way through the process over the past six years was an inappropriate way to start the redevelopment of the central waterfront, in my view,” McAuley said. “When you have a waterfront property like that you can either showcase it in a grandiose Grandville Island plan, or something that perhaps fits our community better.
“In that case,” McAuley continued, “perhaps we can better use our geography to attract business interests that can improve our economy. We have land for housing. We have perhaps even better landscapes for high rises. The missing piece, however, is a working waterfront, and we can offer that.”
“After many years of discussion, planning, environmental review, and the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement and a new Master Plan, we are now at the moment when we must move from study to delivery,” Sheldon announced in his reorganization. “While we are still some months away from concluding our rezoning agreements with the city, now is the time to provide full-time, direct attention to finding users of that property, whether they are mixed-use developers or industrial users. Our priority is bringing those properties back into productive use and adding jobs to the waterfront, similar to those we recently announced for the Shipping Terminal, and to do that we need to move beyond planning efforts to action, and that action relies upon outside investment, developers and innovative partnerships,” Sheldon said.
“This economic climate demands that we go out and find new businesses and new partners, as well as work with companies and organizations in our community that are ready to grow,” Sheldon added.
Changes include promoting port Chief Financial Officer Rob Fix to the the role of deputy director in addition to his current duties. Fix will oversee port finances, economic development, informational services and real estate administration. Equally significant—and a source of tension between Walker and Sheldon—the reorganization moves Lydia Bennett into the role of director of Business Development, finding tenants for port properties.
“Lydia Bennett will be doing exactly what she was originally hired to do,” McAuley said. “That’s a sea change in a big, big way. She will be focused strictly on that waterfront, and getting businesses to locate there.”
As redevelopment efforts stalled with the collapse of the economy in 2007, Bennett was shifted into a more supervisory role, managing the port’s real estate assets along with office duties.
“Lydia Bennett has extensive private sector real estate experience and I want her to now spend all her time bringing the waterfront properties, as well as other port properties in the county, such as in Blaine, back into use,” Sheldon explained.
It’s an encouraging shift for the port authority, on a scale similar to that of one of Shledon’s earliest actions, which was to revise moorage rates for Bellingham’s commercial fishing fleets last year, a shift strongly supported by McAuley. McAuley was able to persuade his fellow port commissioners to lower the commercial moorage rate for vessels smaller than 80 feet by about a dollar per foot per month. The reduction adjusts Bellingham rates comparable to Seattle.
“Now we have fisherman talking about Bellingham from the Gulf of Alaska all the way down the coast of California, which is a great reputation to be building,” McAuley said. “Other thinkers and business leaders may similarly respond to our new emphasis.”
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