Breached and Beached
Wednesday, May 10, 2017
BREACHED AND BEACHED: The Port of Bellingham chalked up more than $1 million in lost opportunity costs last week, after commissioners voted 2-1 to ignore a City of Bellingham offer of $300,000 in capital contribution to partner with the agency on marine trade investments in an effort to move forward with a proposed homeless shelter on a piece of property the city owned. Instead, commissioners voted to materially interfere with the city’s plans for its property by choosing the port’s option to buy the property for $760,000.
The city owned the property, a nugget left over from a 2012 land swap agreement that allowed both the city and port in a cash-free transaction to separate and consolidate a jumble of waterfront properties each owned following the shuttering and sale of the former Georgia-Pacific mill site. The port assembled their holdings into a marine trades area. The city ended up on the poor side financially of that 2012 swap, and chose to retain a piece of property inside that marine trades area known as the former Colony Wharf site. The port didn’t want to pay the city for Colony Wharf, but did ask for a first option to purchase the property in the event of some future sale or proposed use by the city.
Last week’s action might be seen in the context of the City of Bellingham asking their partner on the waterfront, the Port of Bellingham, for little forbearance on the city’s plan to address the growing crisis around homelessness, a forbearance for which the city was willing to partner up an additional $300,000 in investments for the port. And the Port of Bellingham commissioners told the City of Bellingham to go pound sand.
The Gristle has remained fiercely agnostic on the issue of whether the heart and center of the port’s marine trades area north of Whatcom Waterway was, in fact, the ideal location for a proposed 200-bed, 24-hour shelter intended to help provide for homeless individuals who do not easily qualify for other housing programs. Very likely, it was a terrible, incompatible location for that proposed use. Nevertheless, in the long give-and-take of the city/port partnership on the waterfront, the port has taken a lot and given very little, while the city has given a lot—only to be taken for a walk off the pier on the one thing they’ve asked of the agency in two decades of waterfront debacle.
“This is a setback in our ability to solve this crisis, which has been identified by our most recent community survey as our number one priority,” Mayor Kelli Linville said of the decision. “The City of Bellingham will continue to move forward to try to find a site that meets the need, however. ...I am disappointed that the port chose not to be a partner on solving this critical issue.”
Commissioners Bobby Briscoe and Michael McAuley exchanged bitter words as they debated whether to dynamite a $1 million partnership agreement with the city.
“The commission thought that the 2012 agreement between the city and the port stood,” Briscoe commented. “That was marine trades area, that was what it was designated to be. On my first day in office, I took an oath to improve our waterfront, and to improve our job base for the people of Whatcom County.”
“I have been supporting and protecting and working my ass off for the people on the working waterfront, and for six years I was alone,” McAuley summarized his time on the commission. “Being asked by people to spend a goodly portion of money that is unbudgeted—we hadn’t planned on this, it’s about $800,000 all-in by the time we’re done. To do what? To move the shelter a couple of hundred feet across the road?”
The problems with security and incompatibility of a shelter in an industrial trades area don’t go away, he said, there’s just less money in the port’s pockets to deal with those concerns. The money, he said, represents about 12 percent of what the port takes in in taxes each year.
But despite the appearance that the two commissioners were diametrically opposed in their views, they were each—in their own way—making the same observation, that the port authority has terribly misapprehended and mismanaged the agency’s assets over the past 20 years—whether by carving off and squandering a critical mass of marine real estate to incompatible uses, or by allowing the agency’s marine assets to decay into ruin.
We might start with the port’s arrogant and ill-advised decision to construct a waterfront remediation agreement upside down: Rather than Georgia-Pacific coming in as a potentially liable party (PLP) and partner for the first $100 million for environmental cleanup and remediation of the former mill site they polluted, the company was released for $1 while the public was saddled with that $100 million cost. Covenants against cost overruns assure that GP will never pay another dime. The duty to remediate a brownfield has fallen on the public, and has crimped the port’s pocketbook ever since.
McAuley in particular listed in painstaking detail the shortfalls of unbudgeted and underbudgeted port projects totaling more than $15.8 million, including marine infrastructure repairs in both Bellingham and Blaine harbors. A 250,000-square-foot warehouse stands virtually empty in Bellingham’s marine trades area, a vast covered space many times larger than the decrepit Colony Wharf building. The commissioner questioned where the agency’s resolve was on marine trades when the decision was made in 2015 to allow Whatcom Waterway to silt up, foreclosing forever on its future for industrial use, while bulkheads and pilings have meanwhile decayed in disrepair.
Briscoe’s position was more blunt, and one he campaigned on: Not one more acre of the port’s marine assets will be whittled away under his watch.
Last week’s action was the captains’ cold righting of a vessel that capsized a long time ago. The commission served their own constituents, but—yeah—they served them well.