The Gristle

The Millworks

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

THE MILLWORKS: At last—a public project with a public benefit is proposed for our public waterfront, built by local community partners.

Port of Bellingham commissioners last month heard the details of a proposal that would repurpose a long- underutlitized site in the Waterfront District subarea to create affordable housing and local food security. Currently the location of an empty warehouse that formerly supported the Georgia Pacific paper mill’s lignin packaging operations, the mixed-use project—dubbed The Millworks—would create a local food campus supported by an event space and performance center, with associated housing, offices and childcare facilities. A dynamic set of local partners would pool interests to create jobs and help strengthen the local economy.

Taking hold in communities around the country, a local food campus employs a single large space where numerous food-related businesses, suppliers and organizations build synergy from one anothers’ activities, Mauri Ingram explained in a presentation to commissioners. Ingram—a former restaurant owner—is president and CEO of the Whatcom Community Foundation. The foundation serves to connect those many and varied local interests with investment capital.

“The big vision that we have gleaned from a mix of inputs is that we really want to focus on local economic development—job creation and development and job training and retention,” Ingram explained. “We also want to make sure we’re building more wealth in the community for farmers and other producers. We want to make sure that when we think about flagship projects for the waterfront, that this is right up there at the top.”

The campus would feature a variety of uses to support local farms, restaurants, food trucks and stores, and would likely include large commercial kitchens, catering services and storehouses for Whatcom County farmer produce.

Initially intrigued by the idea of a local food campus, commissioners had urged for a higher, better use for the former Lignin Building. Under the proposal, the building shell would be demolished later this year to make way for the food campus, which is expected to occupy around 40,000 square feet of the building site. Next to the food campus would be a residential building, with multiple levels of apartment units priced for a living wage.

“Prior discussions centered on the Lignin Building as a site for a local food campus anchored by Bellingham Public Schools commissary, a concept very well-received by community stakeholders,” Ingram explained. “Additional opportunities have emerged, expanding the vision for a local food campus into a broader concept encompassing permanently affordable housing, the Building Performance Center, an event space, creative officing and childcare facilities.”

The Lignin Building space is strategically placed a distance from the waterfront near the headquarters of the Opportunity Council, a key player in championing affordable housing options. Other community partners in the The Millworks project could include the Community Food Co-op, Bellingham Food Bank, Bellingham Technical College’s food preparation program, and Sustainable Connections’ local food program.

“The Millworks partners will benefit from efficiencies and cost savings because facilities and services will be shared in one, central location,” Ingram explained. “By virtue of their proximity to one another, the exchange of information and ideas will yield improvements, innovations and possible joint ventures. Adding vital workforce housing within walking distance of a primary employment center and a wide range of services and amenities, including public transit, is also a benefit.”

While the Whatcom Community Foundation would serve in the role as a master developer for the project and marshal interests, the organization intends to leave the details of food and housing to the other community partners who will serve as experts.

“I am particularly excited about this opportunity,” admitted Port Commissioner Michael Shepard, who has been working closely with the Whatcom Community Foundation and a number of community stakeholders for the past year and half on this project.

“The Sub Area Plan requires at least 10 percent of housing in the Waterfront District to be affordable,” Shepard explained. “The Millworks Project envisions approximately 70 units of mixed income workforce housing, which would match the approximately 70 luxury condos currently in permitting by Harcourt. Bellingham has an acute need for housing of all types, especially workforce housing. This project would exceed the minimum affordability threshold by at least four times.”

The Millworks project could leverage a $250,000 grant from the state’s Department of Ecology and Department of Commerce to evaluate housing opportunities on the Lignin Building site. The Waterfront District is additionally designated as a Bellingham Opportunity Zone, a federal status that enables investors to receive favorable tax treatment when investing in these designated areas.

“The port has a mission for economic development and job creation,” Shepard noted. “This project will support our county’s important agriculture industry though creation of a local food campus. The people of Whatcom County clearly support local employers, like to eat local and keep their money in our local economy. The Local Food Campus does just that, while incubating the agriculture and food sector jobs of tomorrow.”

For community members who have been waiting for years for something remarkable to happen on their stalled central waterfront, a public project construction that could begin immediately and produce demonstrable benefit is a godsend.

“There is a clear community desire for development of the waterfront that aligns with community values,” Shepard agreed. “This project takes one of the few parcels that are not under option by Harcourt and sets an ambitious target for development and use. Development of the Millworks Project by Whatcom Community Foundation will infuse people, jobs and activity into the Waterfront District. This investment will create the excitement we need at the waterfront to spur accelerated buildout of the district.”

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