Port of Bellingham commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to begin negotiations with a local group that would develop the Boardmill building on the waterfront into a boutique hotel and convention center, with additional commercial and residential spaces nearby.
The BoardMill Group proposed remaking the abandoned brick Boardmill building into a three-story, 74-room hotel with a convention center that could accommodate up to 668 people. A new building in the proposal included 80 apartments or condominiums.
While the proposal scored highest in five criteria developed by Port officials — schedule, team composition, architecture, financing and sustainability — BoardMill Group’s vision for the old waterfront building didn’t win any popularity contests.
Emails sent to port commissioners overwhelmingly favored another of the four proposals Port staff considered: a new home for Whatcom Family YMCA.
“It’s a hot-button issue, and people feel strongly about it,” Commissioner Michael Shepard said, referring to waterfront redevelopment in general. “There’s a lot of interest and hopes and desires and vision for what goes on down there.”
Public sentiment aside, commissioners chose the convention center option for its potential as an economic driver.
“The sole purpose for redevelopment on the waterfront is to recoup the costs for the money the taxpayers (invested in waterfront cleanup),” Commissioner Ken Bell said.
The BoardMill Group team, which includes Faber Construction, Haven Design Workshop, developer Michael Watters, Elie Samuel and Pacific Inns, attended Tuesday’s board meeting. Port commissioners urged them to aim for a bigger conference space — something that could host a national Realtor’s convention or a Western Washington University conference.
“We’ve got a huge need for that in this community … It’s a glaring empty spot for us,” Bell said. “Maybe that spot isn’t [the Boardmill site], but I need to know that at some point.”
Port staff and the BoardMill Group have three months to finalize the plan and design, and to iron out the project’s financing. The commissioners will revisit the developer’s proposal at a public meeting in December or January, to decide whether to enter into a contract with the group to redevelop the Boardmill site.
Sympathetic to the broader community's interest, Port commissioners Shepard and Bobby Briscoe urged Port staff to help the YMCA find a new location, either on the waterfront or elsewhere in Bellingham.