Bellingham Waterfront

For more than a decade, Western Washington University (WWU) has worked with the Port of Bellingham (the Port), community partners, and engaged campus stakeholders in planning to create a presence on the Bellingham waterfront. The university continues to believe that expanding academic programming on Bellingham’s revitalized waterfront provides a unique opportunity to expand capacity and visibility, and strengthen partnerships in private industry, and with non-profits, government and education entities.

Background and Collaborative Efforts to Date

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In 2005 the Port of Bellingham acquired the waterfront properties of Georgia-Pacific.


Since 2008 the University and the Port have been working together to facilitate the creation of University facilities on approximately six acres of the Waterfront District.


In October 2009 WWU and the Port created Western Crossing Development as a non-profit corporation that would allow approximately 24 acres of property that the University owns on the southeast corner of Hannegan Rd. and Bakerview Rd. to be sold, with the proceeds going to the purchase of the six acres of land at the waterfront.


In 2012 the Port and the City of Bellingham completed work on a master plan for the Waterfront District and the city set about completing land use regulatory review and approvals.


On July 10, 2013, the University, Port of Bellingham and Western Crossing Development entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to pursue a strategy to facilitate the University’s presence in the Waterfront District.


In May 2015 the Port entered into a master development agreement with Harcourt Development of Dublin, Ireland to develop 19 acres adjacent to the Western Crossing six-acre parcel.


In September 2016 Western published a white paper that outlined a three-phase process for Western in the Waterfront District. Phase I was the Technology Development Center, a state- and federally-funded initiative shared with partner Bellingham Technical College, which was dedicated in fall 2009 and served as a research facility for what was then known as Western’s College of Sciences and Technology.

  • Phase II envisioned the construction of a multi-purpose facility that would focus on bringing people together through conferences and other large gatherings. Since that time, Waterfront District master developer Harcourt Bellingham LLC has put forth a plan for a hotel, convention and meeting center in the Downtown Waterfront.
  • Phase III of Western’s 2016 white paper proposed the development and construction of new academic facilities on the six-acre plot that would be determined by emerging enrollment growth, academic programming and community needs, and by opportunities with potential private and public partners.


On May 10, 2017, the Port and University amended the MOU and agreed to extend the due date for a university development plan from Dec 2015 to June 2018.


During the 2017-18 academic year the Port articulated a vision for a university presence that would create an “innovation economy.” The intent was to create conditions attractive to jobs of the future. In response, WWU created an interdisciplinary group of faculty leaders with expertise in Biology, Chemistry, Computer Science, Business & Sustainability, Energy Studies, Engineering, Entrepreneurship & Innovation Studies, and Environmental Studies to develop a prototype Waterfront presence. The prototype called for an innovation hub devoted in part to energy science and technology, where students, faculty members and industry partners could collaborate on research. The vision also called for a 200-250-seat meeting, arts and performance space that could be used by the University, the community, and regional partners.


The University submitted the draft vision at the June 2018 Board of Trustees meeting and subsequently submitted it to the Port of Bellingham. At the same time, the vision was also submitted for broad faculty feedback. That feedback focused on the fact that the faculty ideation group working on the vision was too STEM-discipline focused. The University then reformulated the group during the 2018-19 academic year with additional representation from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, the College of Fine and Performing Arts, Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies and the Woodring College of Education.


At public Port Commission meetings on February 19 and March 19, 2019, the Commissioners voiced frustration with the pace of development of the University’s plan for the Waterfront District and criticized the prototype plan as too far-reaching and not focused enough on economic and workforce development.

On March 25, 2019 WWU and the port completed a second amendment to the Western Crossing MOU that extends the deadline for a development plan to September 30, 2019.

At that time, the Port and University also agreed to create a small working group of Port and University officials to work in good faith toward a shared vision that takes into account the Port’s desire for a presence that supports economic development and job creation.

In October 2019 the University completed the sale of the Hannegan road property.

Working Group Process and Activities

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The Working Group includes Port of Bellingham Commissioner Ken Bell, Economic Development Director Don Goldberg, Environmental & Planning Services Director Brian Gouran, and Research & Communications Coordinator Jennifer Noveck. Representatives from WWU include Provost & Vice President for Academic Affairs Brent Carbajal, Vice President for University Relations & Marketing Donna Gibbs, and Dean of the College of Science and Engineering Brad Johnson.

The focus of the collaborative planning efforts has been to define a public-private partnership model that proposes a mix of private sector industries and developers, public agencies and a multi-institutional higher education presence. The goal is a set of facilities that would both expand the employer base and provide potential opportunities for applied learning, integrated research in undergraduate and graduate programs, and desirable jobs for WWU alumni and residents.

Engineering Student Working on machine

The University has leveraged existing partnerships in private and public organizations to facilitate introductions for Port economic development staff in the following sectors:

  • Naval architecture and marine engineering services;

  • National laboratories focused on climate research, electric power grid modernization, cybersecurity, and oceanic and volcanic research;

  • Companies focused on designing, building, operating and maintaining high-performance, energy-efficient buildings.

In tandem with this, the Port has recently joined Gov. Inslee’s Washington Maritime Blue initiative. The initiative is committed to developing a comprehensive plan to accelerate decarbonization and clean technology innovation throughout Washington’s maritime industry. The Working Group has also studied other regional research parks, technology communities and incubators that provide access to university-based talent pipelines, specialized equipment and research infrastructure.

As a first step, the Working Group developed the following draft framework, vision statement and guiding principles.

Framework and Vision Statement

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Vision Statement

The Port of Bellingham and Western Washington University are united in creating a diversified, regionally and globally competitive, sustainable economy manifested in the Waterfront District. We envision a district that provides living-wage jobs for Whatcom County residents by focusing on training for our current industrial base, increases per capita and business income, enhances the tax base, protects the environment, improves the quality of life of residents and makes full use of the region’s human and financial capital and abundant natural resources.

Guiding Principles

  • The Port and the University are committed to working together over the next several years to guide sound decision-making regarding growth that will enhance Bellingham and Whatcom County as a great place to live, to work and todo business. We also envision that our residents will use the facilities created to become lifelong learners. We are committed to the continued revitalization and development of the Waterfront District through increased private investment that expands the employer base and provides opportunities for hands-on applied learning, apprenticeships and internships, and integrated research in undergraduate and graduate programs leading to highly desirable jobs for graduates and other residents, and opportunities for community engagement.

  • Industry partnerships will be a key component of Western’s presence in the Waterfront District with a vision of development via a public-private partnership model that provides a mixture of private sector industries and developers, public agencies, and higher education institutions.
  • Businesses and educational and research activities at the Waterfront will be a catalyst for attracting high-paying jobs utilizing Western’s talent pipelines in fields such as Electrical Engineering, Energy Studies, Cybersecurity and other academic programs that tend to engage industry partners.
  • The Waterfront will have innovative state-of-the-art facilities to promote interdisciplinary education and research and multi-institutional collaborations.
  • Project partners will use a phased approach with explicitly stated commitments that accelerate and expand over time.


To pursue an industry partnership model for the Waterfront District that will be financed and operated by private partners and will pair the discovery and dissemination of knowledge with the application of that knowledge to the creation of goods and services, benefiting both the Port’s long- term economic development aspirations and the University’s teaching and learning mission.

WWU Contributions to the Goal

  • Introduction of existing industry partners who may be motivated to locate (or relocate) operations to the Bellingham Waterfront District to take advantage of ongoing research and talent pipelines within the university, as well as lower business costs and workforce livability.

  • Training of future and current industry workforce through undergraduate and advanced degrees.

  • Benefit the public by adding to, and sharing knowledge, broadly.

  • Performance of specific research on behalf of industry partners (sponsored research).

  • Transfer technology and knowledge to enhance commercialization.

  • Provide access, as appropriate, to university-owned equipment, materials, facilities and specialized resources.

  • Objectively test, evaluate and report on new technologies that may emerge.

Port of Bellingham Contributions to the Goal

  • Recruit new employers that can provide employment and research opportunities for students, graduates and other residents.
  • Foster economic development at city, county and state levels that expands markets.
  • Enable access to Port-owned equipment, materials, facilities and specialized resources.
  • Create conditions that allow industry partners to enhance profitability.
  • Locate advancements made by others that solve/ answer general and specific problems faced by industry partners.
  • Support an educated, well-trained, and competitive workforce.

A Public-Private Partnership Innovation Park

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We envision a Waterfront District that includes an innovative community and incubator for new and expanding businesses. The Innovation Park would help startup companies develop their potential and nurture scientific and technological entrepreneurial ventures, as well as established businesses and public laboratories that want to gain access to specialized facilities, expertise, technology and talent recruitment.

The Innovation Park itself would be a model for this new future with a built environment that delivers net- zero energy building performance while minimizing, if not eliminating, the carbon emissions associated with powering, heating and cooling buildings at market cost by reusing existing legacy industry infrastructure.

Western Washington University envisions being a collaborative partner in the Innovation Park and a potential tenant especially as new graduate programs, that are not as dependent on foundational general university required courses, are developed in the future.

The Public Private Partnership model envisioned in this Development Plan is not strictly tied to the Western Crossing six acre parcel contemplated in the MOU between the Port and WWU. Rather, this Innovation Park may include portions, all, or none of the six acres depending on how the development occurs over time. As the Innovation Park advances from concept to reality, the Port, WWU and Western Crossing will jointly determine how the six acres will be utilized. Acquisition of property by WWU and use of funds from the sale of the Hannegan Road property will be addressed in future amendments to the Western Crossing MOU and considered on a project specific basis, which may be part of, or separate from, the Innovation Park Public Private Partnership.

What would a P3 model accomplish for the Western Crossing partnership and community?

  • Committed stakeholders with a clear vision of the intention of the Innovation Park.

  • A state of the art net-zero energy Innovation Park using the district energy model.

  • The P3 model uses the best of each P (Private, Public Partnership):

Private Partner:

  • Developer brings the newest and most up to date building systems and the capacity to move the project along in a timely fashion and at a budget that typically is more affordable than the public can facilitate.

  • Developer often has connections with desirable tenants that may either occupy other buildings owned by the company or often work closely with them in some form.

  • Specialize in building business and innovation parks as well as promoting the project.

  • Specialized staff and subcontractors who have deep-rooted relationships.

Public Partner:

  • The public partner is the owner of the property.
  • The public entities have the capacity to fund through grants and other mechanisms that are often not available to the private sector.
  • Supports the project politically.
  • Brings potential tenancy or ownership through some form of occupancy.
  • Seeds the project.
  • Markets the project as well as the region.
  • Key stakeholder for connecting WWU degrees and faculty and student research and creative activity to the tenants’ output.
  • Creates an open inviting regional asset connecting higher education to the private sector.


The above example is one form of a P3 where the Western Crossing model can remain in place, continue to work toward an exciting Innovation Park of the future emphasizing clean energy, marine engineering, natural resource research, cyber security, and other emerging technologies. By bringing in a private developer, Western Crossing can move more quickly, have direction and have the ability to create an innovation park of the future supporting WWU, the Port and our regional economy for decades to come.

Implementation Approach & Next Steps

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Finalize and Adopt Development Plan and Amend Memorandum of Understanding (as needed)


Establish Port/WWU P3 team

Determine development commitments that each entity is willing to make to catalyze the project

Develop and issue RFP for P3 partnership proposals

Define project area, location, footprint, etc.

Establish P3 criteria requirements

Evaluate RFP responses

Negotiate P3 terms

Enter P3 agreements



Establish development parcels

Preliminary project design/layout

Initiate project No. 1 permitting


Project No. 1 construction


Project No. 1 occupancy

2024 and Beyond

Additional development projects per schedule to be established in P3 agreement

Coordination with potential development and industry partners, focused on industry sectors identified in Development Plan.

Coordination with Washington state Department of Ecology for additional site cleanup and preparation ahead of, or in conjunction with, development.