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Guest writer: Port’s ‘devil’s bargain’ was bad deal for Bellingham’s future

Irish developer Harcourt's exit an opportunity to reconsider waterfront plan

The Portal Container Village on downtown Bellingham's waterfront
The Portal Container Village on downtown Bellingham's waterfront (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By John D'Onofrio, Guest Writer

After reading the letter to the editor by Steve Bailey (CDN, Dec. 13, 2023), I was reminded how truly sad the situation is with respect to our waterfront redevelopment 17 years after the closure of the Georgia Pacific Mill.

I served on the Board of Directors of the Bellingham Bay Foundation back in those days, an organization tasked with visioning how the abandoned — and profoundly contaminated — mill site could be repurposed to serve the needs of the community. 

We advocated for a waterfront redevelopment that would enhance and build on Bellingham’s emerging prominence as an environmentally friendly center of recreation and natural beauty, a place that was starting to be seen as one of the most desirable places in the Pacific Northwest to live, work, build a business and raise a family. 

We advocated for significant open space: a signature waterfront park that would serve as a gateway to the San Juan Islands and include cultural centers celebrating the original inhabitants, the Coast Salish People, with a presence for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Western Washington University, and most importantly, a thorough and comprehensive clean-up of the toxic legacy left behind by GP.

It seemed obvious that such a redevelopment would add tremendous value to the surrounding downtown, increasing property values, energizing the downtown core and enhancing Bellingham’s reputation as a focal point for Pacific Northwest quality of life. With the right leadership, this could have been the waterfront that we enjoy today.

But the Port of Bellingham would have none of it. Their sole goal was to maximize the revenue stream that could be generated on the site itself (prosperity in the surrounding city didn’t benefit them). So, they signed a devil’s bargain with the Irish developer Harcourt (ignoring the glaring red flags of previous defaults, failures and broken promises), did a slipshod job of decontaminating the site (parents: for God’s sake, don’t let your children go in the water!) and now — almost two decades later — we are left with half-finished condos and piles of toxic materials covered in plastic. 

Though family-friendly, the beer garden built of shipping containers and pump track are the smallest of consolation prizes. What if we saw Harcourt’s exit from the scene as an opportunity to reconsider the project in its entirety? All the considerations that seemed important 17 years ago are even more important today.

Engaged Bellingham citizen John D’Onofrio is publisher/editor of Adventures Northwest Magazine.

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