Business Matters

Bellingham’s Portal Container Village expands for 2023 season

Port of Bellingham says current location likely to continue for at least 10 years
March 8, 2023 at 4:50 a.m.
The entrance to The Portal Container Village on Bellingham's waterfront on a late February day. The Port of Bellingham will add more containers, food trucks and ambience for the 2023 season.
The entrance to The Portal Container Village on Bellingham's waterfront on a late February day. The Port of Bellingham will add more containers, food trucks and ambience for the 2023 season. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Business & Work Columnist

Night, meet lights. If you’re building a retail center, it helps if storefronts can be added or moved based on demand. It also helps if the landlord is easily able to source structures to use as stores.

In the case of The Portal Container Village on downtown Bellingham’s waterfront, both are true. The pop-up waterfront center at 296 W. Laurel St. is expanding in 2023 and could be there for a decade or more, just two years after it began as an experiment on undeveloped Port of Bellingham property.

Visiting the Portal in the off-season — that is to say, now — was a little like cruising a side show’s buildings after the circus left town. The stacked and carefully arranged bright blue, red and yellow metal shipping containers were quiet. The gravel and wood chips underfoot led to a surprisingly green, well-kept lawn by the Kulshan Brewing Company’s two Trackside beer garden containers, with a sign on a closed gate that cheerfully proclaimed, “We’ll be back in the spring!”

The pump track at the connected Waterfront Bike Park that February day was mostly empty, except for a couple of kids on bicycles whose thick, puffy coats could double as cold and impact protection.

But expect the quiet to end come April when it’s anticipated three of the five vendors — all who participated last year — will reopen, with the balance to return in early May. Last year’s five won’t be alone.

“The port has applied for permits to add two more container businesses along with a second rotating container shop for local artisans to sell handmade crafts and goods,” said Mike Hogan, public affairs administrator for the port. In addition, he said, more electricity connections will allow for more food trucks on-site; the port began soliciting food trucks and new local vendors on Facebook in early February. 

Atmosphere and services are also expected to get a boost.

“The port is also adding string lights through the container village for evening ambience, connecting one of the restroom trailers to the city sewer for more reliable service, improving ADA access, making improvements to the pump track, and adding a small children’s playground,” Hogan said. 

photo  Part of the Waterfront Bike Park next to The Portal Container Village on Bellingham's waterfront Feb. 16. Plans for 2023 include improvements to the pump track. (Frank Catalano/Cascadia Daily News)  

Planned 2023 events include the Shoestring Circus under a big top tent for seven performances in May as part of “more waterfront events than ever this summer,” Hogan said. They’ll kick off with April Brews Day on April 29 and continue with weekly family fun activities that begin in June.

Last year’s Portal tenants — Kulshan Trackside Beer Garden, Our Kitchen, Rain or Shine Riviera Club, Sun-E-Land Bikes and The Selkie Scoop — seemed uniformly excited by 2023’s expansion plans when contacted. Several said they’re growing, too.

“We are looking forward to expanding our tour options for 2023,” said Matt Holmes, owner of Sun-E-Land Bikes. “We will be offering guided tours that take people from our shop to destinations around Bellingham and Whatcom County.” 

Our Kitchen, which partners with the D.I.S.H. Foundation to provide training and employment opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said it’s tweaking its Portal menu. Owner Suzanne Taylor said they hope to see more people earlier in the day.

“At the end of the season last year we started expanding our menu to breakfast and added more dinner items, which was a success,” Taylor said.

Meika Ziels and Bryn Hubbard, the owners of The Selkie Scoop, hope to “expedite our ice cream service to get a bit more people through the line.” Johnny Mac, who owns Filling Station-affiliated Riviera Club, said the eatery has a plan “to build a shuffleboard patio but nothing is set in stone.”

Yet it’s Kulshan that has the longest perspective: it was the first container to open two years ago, followed later in the summer by Selkie Scoop. 

“It has been tremendous to see what was once a vacant lot in 2021 transformed into the space we have today, and to see the community show up and recreate a large area of downtown that was not previously accessible to the public,” said Bill Morrison, owner and general manager of Kulshan. “We're also making some improvements in our space to enhance the overall experience — including upgrades to the live music program and our beer service.”

photo  Sun-E-Land Bikes at The Portal Container Village Feb. 16, shuttered for the off season. The rental shop's owner will expand guided tour options in 2023. (Frank Catalano/Cascadia Daily News)  

When the 2023 season ends at the end of September (with late season days dependent on weather), don’t expect the latest improvements to have a summer romance’s longevity.

“The port anticipates The Portal ‘season’ to get longer and longer in the coming years as the downtown waterfront becomes increasingly active with residential, retail and office uses along with new parks and open space,” Hogan said. He said even the proposed hotel and convention center redevelopment of the brick Boardmill building across the street — still in the early stages — is not predicted to impact the location or operations of the Portal, which could see more expansion.

“The Portal could be moved to another area of the downtown waterfront, but will likely remain in its current location for at least 10 years,” Hogan said.

That’s welcome news to Downtown Bellingham Partnership, which promotes area commerce.

“It serves an important purpose as a regional attraction, bringing in seasonal tourists who may otherwise not discover downtown’s suite of stores, restaurants and of course breweries,” said Jenny Hagemann, the partnership's marketing and communications manager. “We are an experience-driven city and the waterfront’s Container Village just adds another reason to spend an afternoon or weekend exploring downtown and beyond.”

Places & Things

Joe’s Gardens in Bellingham reopened for the season on Feb. 27. The fruit, vegetable and plant provider in the Happy Valley neighborhood at 3110 Taylor Ave. said on its website it’s now open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, Joe’s Garden typically reopens around the start of March; it closed for the 2022 season on Oct. 1

(For the latest Places & Things, check here throughout the week.)

Frank Catalano’s column appears Wednesdays. Email:; Twitter @FrankCatalano.

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