Saturday, June 6, 2009

Economic Development: Why Not Combine City & Port?

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." - Einstein

'Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.' - Einstein


You know, it doesn't really take an Einstein to figure out when something is not working too well, or to suggest a few changes that might help.
Common sense, based on observation can go a long way in that direction, but only if folks decide to pay attention.
There may be some impracticalities included in these remarks, but maybe a few good ideas, too.
You decide.

For purposes of efficiency and connecting planning with results that fit the purpose, maybe its time to consider consolidating the functions of City and Port?
Think about it.

For years, the City has been criticized for not having an Economic Development Element in its Comprehensive Plan, because the State Growth Management Act doesn't actually require it.
Yet, a super majority of the jobs in Whatcom County are located in the City.
And, experts tell us that is desirable for multiple reasons.

On the other hand, the Port of Bellingham has followed its nose as a Special Purpose District since its inception, and without much public notice until fairly recently.
That significant moment in time occurred when the Port decided to acquire the former G-P property and redevelop our Waterfront.
But, that was also the time the Port stepped spectacularly into the real public eye, by traipsing through a very public puddle -called 'public process'.
Not a very comfortable place to enjoy relative obscurity, those public puddles!

Now, since the Port has actually touched the 'tar-baby' of partnering with the City, its choice to remain anonymous has disappeared.
And, since the Waterfront District clean-up and redevelopment are both desirable goals, why not make the City-Port partnership real, and permanent?

Understanding the full gravity and scope of the waterfront redevelopment being proposed, puts into clear perspective the challenges that both Port and City face.
But, already cracks are appearing in the facade of true cooperation.
Like the Port's insistence upon having its way with street layout, parking provisions and exemptions from impact fees for starters.
And, the Port is willing to posture on these points as if they were really deal breakers!
What's with that?

While it is normal for developers to negotiate hard with regulators, the Port's attitude is beginning to wear very thin.
Just look at the Port's actions regarding extension of water and sewer to its properties adjacent to the airport, for example.
Rather than accept the City's new and long overdue policy of requiring annexation before extending these essential utilities, the Port would rather stay stuck in the past, and legally challenge the annexation policy.
It's OK to pose legal challenges, but what does that say about the type of partnership the Port has in mind?
Maybe the County will be encouraged to do a similar thing when they get around to actually building a new jail facility, which likely may locate just past the airport?

Point is, the City's rules and regulations are there for good reasons, and must be applied consistently and fairly.
So, if constant tussles are in the offing over this kind of stuff, maybe the City needs to take a more active role in big, important projects like waterfront redevelopment.
I'm sure the Port is up to the job technically and professionally.
But, attitude-wise, not!
That is a poor foundation for a lasting, productive relationship, and it ought to be addressed before proceeding too much further.

It wouldn't take much to establish another City Department and set it up as essentially another Enterprise Fund that is self-supporting, something like the Water, Sewer and Storm water utilities.
Also, the former 'Commissioner' function might continue in some important capacity by duly appointing at least five Directors of a new Public Development Authority, along the lines of the Public Facilities District which has worked pretty well to improve the City's Cultural facilities, using monies returned to it by the State of Washington for that sole purpose.
BTW, Whatcom County also saw the value of participating in the PFD.

I can visualize an appointment process along the lines the City now uses to pick its Finance Director; establish specific duties for the new agency and its Directors, solicit applications from persons qualified for the job, interviews, short list interviews, appointment by Major, subject to Council approval for a fixed term of office, public meetings of the PDA all televised by BTV10.
Sound viable?

Of course, there might be a few flies in this proposed ointment, too.
Turf protection
Resistance to change of any kind
Financial liability
Expansion of City control
Just to name a few.

But, these can be overcome if citizens see this as a way toward better control of the Port's public activities and accountability.

Regarding funding, the Port already collects funds from public taxes, grants and revenues from its properties and operations.
Conceivably, these could remain to be used for customary and necessary purposes.

What could be wrong with trying such an approach?
It would take time and effort to accomplish.
And, since there are a few other things that might limit attention away from fundamental structural changes like this being made, there would need to be a groundswell of public support behind it.
But, think about it.
It would greatly improve the public process people seem to want.
And, it shouldn't require major new funding.
Plus, it could benefit the City's efforts to create jobs and help our local economy.

Would Whatcom County object?
That might depend upon who is in office.
After all, the County's relationship with the Port has been nothing to write home about!
Why, it's made the City/Port partnership look positively peachy keen in comparison.
Of course, the City/Port are no longer getting along as well as they were a few years ago, either.
Is that the way it is with relationships?
Familiarity breeds contempt?

I suspect the attitude Whatcom County might display depends on what's in it for them.
Because they seem used to thinking of themselves as the big dog, which in a sense they are under State law.
Just look at how the County has acted during the protracted Growth Management proceedings known as population forecasts and Comprehensive Plan update.
Much more attitude than aptitude in my book!

In this regard, maybe some of the Port properties outside of Bellingham might be turned over to the County as potential 'free trade zones' or places where start-up companies could get started, incubate and grow.
And, maybe the County could be persuaded to locate its proposed new jail facility down on the waterfront, to keep it in town and prevent more sprawl?
The G-P warehouse could provide a good sized footprint, while continuing to cap the contamination underneath.
Just more food for thought.

But, look at how the County acted when presented with the opportunity to support the so-called LIFT legislation to help pay for waterfront redevelopment infrastructure costs.

To date, there have not been any County Economic Development Incentive [EDI] funds targeted toward waterfront redevelopment, either.
Why is that?
After all, EDI funds were appropriated to help pay for Market Depot Square.
So, why not the waterfront?

Whether the County's attitude towards other municipalities -City and Port included- is deliberately malicious or merely aberrant and self-serving, is difficult to know with certainty, except from public expressions from individuals, and the County's own public record.
More likely, the County is just being jealous of its status as chief purveyor of Economic Development Incentive [EDI] funds and countywide services, and is so blinded by its own importance that ignorance of issues and activities outside its command and control mentality is allowed to grow like an untended garden.
If any of this perceived attitude continues, the County could also become a roadblock to any consolidation of City and Port responsibilities.

These musings, ideas and concerns are not just my opinions, because several do reflect fairly broad publicly stated positions.
But, don't you think they need to be aired and debated?
What better time for that than during an election that could result in changing two of the three Port Commissioners?

Just ask each candidate;
'Do you think some dramatic changes are in order for the Port?
Or, do you think things are pretty much OK the way they are?

See where each comes down on these questions.
Then, ask them to justify their positions.

If citizens are listening, they will get to decide this issue at the ballot box, come November 3.
After all, its in the public's best interests to not only get the best plan possible, but the best elected representatives to carry it out.

'It is no use saying, We are doing our best. You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.' - Churchill

'Some see private enterprise as a predatory target to be shot, others as a cow to be milked, but few are those who see it as a sturdy horse pulling the wagon.' - Churchill