Common Threads Northwest spoke with Bobby Briscoe, who is running for re-election as Port Commissioner District 3.
CTNW: Why are you running for re-election and why do you believe you are qualified?
Bobby Briscoe: I care deeply about our county and want to continue to help ensure that we have a good economy with a balance of environmental stewardship. We have many projects going on that I would like to see completed while I'm in office. I've been told that we have a very good commission and I believe that to be true. Through input from the public and local businesses a commissioner should weigh many options while holding true to the mission statement. When the commission works well together, we get more things accomplished. I would like to take advantage of this and with the help of the other two commissioners do the work that needs to be done for the county.
CTNW: And you believe you are qualified because...
Bobby: I've lived in this county my entire life. I've seen the changes—good and bad. I've been in the maritime industry my entire life. I've operated my own business for 45-years. I've been fishing for 51-years. I've played a big part in the marine area of the port as a commissioner. This is where my expertise comes in. I also understand budgets and running a business from my years of building and buying boats, running boats and having employees to train. I've learned a lot about the airport. It's been a learning experience for me. I believe that my track record shows that I'm able to do the job and I'm still willing to do the job.
CTNW: How do you believe the Port is different than—from a political and leadership position—is different than, say, a city or county council position?
Bobby: Well to start with, the Port has a very clear mission statement, and that was put out by the State of Washington under the Washington Public Ports Authority Act. So, we have a very clear mission statement of what our job is. I think when you get into other areas like the county and the city, things become more complex, less clear and involve a lot more people. We have a pretty narrow description of what we're allowed to do under state law and what we're supposed to do. So, I think that's probably the biggest difference.
CTNW: What leadership qualities does the Port need right now?
Bobby: A balanced leadership. One that can see the big picture, include all the issues, and make decisive decisions based on the facts. You know, we're faced with a lot of things. We've got climate change issues. We've got a lot of cleanups left to do. I think the course the Port has been on, has been a positive one. We've got some projects completed that have taken many years to put together.
CTNW: Your leadership style, so basically you would say that it's looking for solutions or outcomes or what?
Bobby: Always looking to the future to start with. This isn't about us, it's about our future generations, and that's what we're supposed to set up. One of the things I don't want to [have] happen in the future is [to] have people deal with things that we've done wrong, things that we didn't take care of that we should've taken care of and made right. So, everything we do at the Port we try and do right the first time; number one, to save the taxpayer their dollars. Let's do it right the first time so we don't have to go back and redo it. Let's try and fix what wasn't done right previously and have the things that we do now last into the next 100-years if possible. I think forward-looking leadership is what's needed, because we have a lot of things that are going to have to last into the future. Be it clean industry or cleaning up the environmental issues that the Port's still faced with. I believe the type of leadership's that's needed is forward-thinking leadership, and I've always been a forward-thinking person.
CTNW: What is the most important function of the Port?
Bobby: Following the mission statement. A port commissioner needs to follow the mission statement to a ‘T’ because it was put in place for a reason. It's the economic development of our county, and the transport of goods in and out of our county, and economic growth. It's all one thing to me, and that is what the port commissioners need to be focused on.
CTNW: What is the Port's biggest economic development opportunity?
Bobby: The Port has a new Economic Development Team. They're out in many different places researching opportunities. The fiber-optics plan that is in place will be good for the entire county, not just part of it. There are three phases to it which will cover all of Whatcom County. This is one example, in particular, that's going on right now.
CTNW: Is that going to affect all of Whatcom County?
Bobby: Yes, it will. There are phases but eventually it will help everyone's business as well as helping our emergency responders.
CTNW: What is the Port's biggest financial challenge and how should it be addressed?
Bobby: We have many issues that are financially challenging to deal with. A few examples are the ASB [Aeration Stabilization Basin] pond and an aging inner harbor that needs to be repaired that will be quite expensive. I think the biggest thing we can do is to get our shipping terminal online again. The shipping terminal used to take care of all the financial responsibilities of the Port of Bellingham. That left the taxpayers' dollars to invest into economic growth only. Our terminal is coming online, and we've got several good things going on there. If we can get the shipping terminal producing, then we don't have to go to people's pockets to make the Port run. The machine should take care of itself. The people shouldn't have to take care of it, and if it's run properly, that will happen.
CTNW: How best can the Port help to build our tax base?
Bobby: Well to build the base tax, the best thing we can do is bring as much clean industry as we can to put people to work with good, living-wage jobs so that they can afford homes and own property.
CTNW: What do you believe that the Port is spending too much on or not enough on? Is there anything that you think that they're spending too much money on or not enough money on?
Bobby: We just came out of our budget retreat, our first one for the year. It will set the pace for the final one in September or October. Our financial person[s] Tamara and Rob, they do a very good job of trimming the fat in all places. We haven't raised taxes since I came into the commission seat. I don't want to vote to raise people's taxes. Our Airport Director Sunil [Harman], when he came on board, trimmed the airport back immensely. We were way in the red there. We're on the right side of things, and that's been difficult with the Canadian dollar where it is at. I think we're pretty frugal on trying to get as many things done that need to be done—and there's a big list of them—with the amount of money we have [to allocate] and not go [in]to people's pockets or go borrow money.
CTNW: It was mentioned that the new Bellingham International Airport Director is looking to create some educational opportunities out there on the property. Are you aware of that? Is the Port involved in that?
Bobby: Yes, the Port is involved with that because the airport is our property. I think it's a great thing. We talked about this a year-and-a-half ago. There is a committee that's working on this and to the best of my knowledge, all the Port commissioners are on board and support a program like that here.
CTNW: And that would help to decrease some of the costs of the airport property, or not?
Bobby: You know, maybe in the future. If we had a really good system going and it brought in some other airlines maybe, but I don't believe we're looking at the program to pay for the airport. We're looking at the program to educate our young people, so they have a chance to do something diverse, as well as maybe putting some pilots into the system. There is a great need for new pilots and aircraft maintenance people.
CTNW: How are we doing with the balance of infrastructure improvements that the Port oversees and controls? Do we have borrowing costs associated with that? Are we getting the infrastructure improvements in? Are we having to borrow anything?
Bobby: We're not borrowing money at this time. We are moving ahead fixing the infrastructure slowly. We've been able to hold our own with that. I'm not going to tell you that there isn't a big 500-pound gorilla sitting out there in a tree because there is—I mean it's a $20 million project to replace the small inner harbor where all the recreational boats are. We've been able to defer that. We've done some fixing. We've had a survey done of the harbor and one just recently, and we're waiting for those results to come back to find out if we've got another 2, 5 or 10 years from where we're at, if we fix a few things. The harbor was supposed to be replaced 5 years ago, I believe. In the beginning when they built the harbor, the commission didn't start putting any money in the bank to fix it. There should have been something going somewhere right after they built the harbor to ensure there would be money for repairs. For the last 6-7 years, I think, there's been about a half-a-million dollars a year going to the bank for repairs.
CTNW: Is that adequate or does it need to be more?
Bobby: Well if we had started 30 years ago, that would have been adequate. Now, to replace the harbor, no it's not adequate. We're hoping the shipping terminal comes online. We're hoping we've got 4 or 5 more years there. And maybe we'll escape having to borrow money or raise property taxes, which—in this day and age—I mean, people are strapped enough already. Nobody at the Port wants to go to anybody’s pocket to fix things but sometimes you don't have a choice. But our borrowing power is very good. We [The Port] are paying off the money owed quite rapidly, so we're in a better position than we thought we would be going into 2020.
CTNW: Is the waterfront redevelopment helping?
Bobby: Well, it would if we could sell more property. The only parcels of property that were sold is the Granary building and the next three properties on the waterfront Harcourt has paid for. The next piece that they said they may build on is right across the street from the Granary. There's going to be an office building with parking underneath it. That would be the next purchased piece of property. And then my best guess is the Board Mill would be the next one, because that will be in the amended sub-area plan. We changed Western Crossing's portion, and the Board Mill then comes into Harcourt's buildable properties. They're excited about that, so my assumption is that money from that property will hopefully come-in, in the near future.
CTNW: And, I realize that doesn't hit the timeline that you're talking about because, from my understanding, that whole buildup for Harcourt is a 50-year plan and you're looking at that stuff in 5 to 10 years.
Bobby: I think it all depends on the economy around here. Pat Doherty [Chairman/Founder at Harcourt Developments], he's 77 years old, I've met him and he's a go-getter. And I don't think he likes letting grass grow under his feet. I think he wants to get in there and get that development done. Which would be to their advantage if they've got this much invested already. You know, dragging it out 50-years, I don't see that happening. I believe the reason it's spanned out to 50-years is the past economy. You don't want to say "yeah, okay I can do it in ten," and then things go sideways, and you can't do it in ten. I believe things will start happening faster down there.
CTNW: How do we create more opportunities for youth and young adults after high school or graduation? Is the Port able to, with economic development, is that something you can affect?
Bobby: We're definitely concerned about what's going on with our youth in the county. I think maybe you and I have spoken to the fact that the kids need shop classes. They need hands on experience at an early age in school. They need the chance to engage and be on job-sites to find out what they are interested in, [and] be shown things that they can do, as far as once they're out of school, as a job, different types of careers. I think the Port could help in that manner. Down on the GP site in that development, we could have some higher educational system, possibly a STEM system education. There are many possibilities. Jim McKinney has a very good youth program moving forward.
CTNW: ...Called "YES", for Youth Engagement Services, something like that.
Bobby: That's the key word right there: engagement. We need to engage our young people and show them what's possible—that maybe you don't have to have a 4-year, or an 8-year college degree, to go out and make a living in the world. You know, everybody isn't geared for that. We need our trades people back. Because they're all getting silver hair like you and I, and that Silver Tsunami is hitting the trades sector as well. Our children are our economic growth too.
CTNW: And being able to keep them or attract them here, would that be a goal that is viable?
Bobby: It's my goal. I've never wanted to bring a lot of people to our county. I hear all the time: we need to get people in here, we need to get them here somehow. Well we've got plenty of people here. I don't know what Sehome and Squalicum and Bellingham, those three [high] schools in Bellingham alone, I don't know how many kids they turn out each year. I haven't looked the number up, graduating class–wise, but it's got to be substantial. And then you throw in Meridian, Mount Baker, Lynden, Nooksack, Sumas— you throw all those schools in, we have a large number of people right here. We do not need to attract workers from other areas. I think we have a great workforce here if we train them early enough and properly. I'd rather see many of our kids be tradesmen here and be able to stay close to home and close to their families instead of having to move away because they couldn't get a good job here. I know it's the Port's responsibility to try and get those good jobs here, and we're trying but in today's world it's not as easy as everyone thinks to attract those clean industry, high-paying jobs.
CTNW: I'm going to put these two questions together. They're two separate ones but they're very similar. What basic services need improvement within the county that the Port can affect, such as do you think that the Port should ensure that every resident has internet access?
Bobby: Well, I think we have to, because it's obvious that the independent companies have not done that. That's why the Ports across the state were granted the power to be able to get the infrastructure in there. It maybe hasn't been to the private carrier's advantage to put more cable in the ground and do things differently. Maybe it's because they're making enough money, maybe they don't want to spend it. I don't know. Whatever the reason is, but, when you can get that fiber-optic cable out to the rest of the county...
CTNW: So just in clarity here: so basically, the Port has access to funds to help install fiber-optic within the county that then other private companies could come in and use that fiber-optic to offer service like internet access.
Bobby: Correct. They would buy the wire or whatever you want to call it. And as far as the funding, the Port will have to fund part of it [and] we have grants for part of it. So, it'll be an expensive project, but I think—I forget what the return is on the money—the money will come back. And I can't remember how many years return it was on it, but it wasn't as long as everybody thought it was going to take. You've got a lot of small businesses out in the county that do not have internet. And our emergency people, are trying to talk on radios because the internet doesn't work in places, and the radio doesn't work in places. It's not just about the businesses and somebody having it in their home, it's also about the emergency services, our sheriff, our police, firemen, everybody. It's a safety issue too, and we've finally got a chance to address that. We didn't have the ability [to] up until a year ago or whenever the law was passed. So that part of it is pretty important to us at the Port. I think it's what the Port needs to do. It's part of our mission. If we can get those small businesses out there that are in the outback, so to speak, connected and increase their business and put more people to work. Maybe it's only one or two people with these small businesses, but they add up. Every job adds up.
CTNW: How would you prioritize Port projects, both current and future?
Bobby: I think one of the biggest ones is, of course, getting started on the fiber-optic. And not to set aside our clean ups. The I and J [Street] Waterway cleanup is getting started. Some of the studies have been done. I think we're going to get underway on that in about a year. We have the ASB pond, and that's been a topic of discussion for about 15-years, I think. I can assure everyone it's not going to be a marina. We're going to be discussing that in the fall.
CTNW: Are we talking about capping or dredging?
Bobby: Maybe a little of both. There's been discussion about filling a third of it, and then the other third maybe opening-up the water. There's been talk about filling the whole thing and putting a barge terminal in or more freezer buildings because we're short on that. Basically, there's been no decisions made by the Port of Bellingham. The process calls for public input and we haven't got to that stage yet. Because a marina was talked about, that design was given to the Department of Ecology. If you're going to do something different, you “have to” go back and re-permit. We started that process, I think a year ago, and we should be done with that process in the fall. Then we can start talking about it publicly: "look, this is what we're thinking about doing, what do you folks want to do?" We'll have public forums on it and see what people want to do.
So that's two of them, and I think the third one... Well maybe before that, we should talk about the shipyard out in Fairhaven that went bankrupt—not any reason to do with the Port. It had nothing to do with us. But we need to get that piece of property up and making money again, because it was a pretty large sum of money that came in there.
CTNW: Is that because of the [Alaska] ferry?
Bobby: No. And by the way, I just got word, the ferry is staying. We're good for at least a year. They're going to look at it again next year, but it says we're good for Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer. So, you can say the Alaska Ferry will remain in service in Bellingham.
CTNW: But when you said bankrupt though, that was...
Bobby: ...The shipyard. That was Puglia and Associates, the big shipyard for rebuilding stuff. He bought another shipyard in San Francisco, and when he did, he bought $30 million of pension liability unknowingly. He didn't do his homework. And once that pension liability is attached to him, it's attached to any business they own. So, it all came up to Bellingham and landed, because that was the only business that was making any money. So, there's ongoing negotiations with the pension folks, and of course you're not going to pay $30 million, but there will be a sum negotiated should someone want to come in and start the shipyard. And we do have two different companies talking to [the] Port about starting it, and we've also had three seafood companies. One of them already does a lot of business at Cold Storage with their big ships that want to come and use the area. So that's a pretty big deal because we lost around 75 jobs and we'd like to get those folks back to work.
CTNW: So, when you said pension liability, that was pension liability that came from the purchase he did down in San Francisco, not from his operations in Bellingham. So, prior to that time, financially his business was doing fine?
Bobby: It had nothing to do with the operation in Bellingham. The Fairhaven shipyard was making good money. It made very good money, actually. The shipyard has done very well. He had a lot of government contracts, and had he not acquired that pension liability they would still be in business. So that was unfortunate.
CTNW: But as far as the Port's relationship with anything else going on for Harcourt, it's more or less: you've done everything that the Port can do, and at this point it's just when and where Harcourt is ready to buy up more property and do the development because they have first rights on it?
Bobby: Correct. We try to keep moving along as fast we can. We'd like to see more action down there just like everybody else. The Port is entirely up to where we're supposed to be with anything we can do. We're waiting on the sub-area plan to come back, and once it's done—we must be getting very close by now—I'm sure we'll negotiate for the Board Mill building properties, as well as the other office building, I hope. I don't believe that there's any way the Port can make things go any faster down there. The City, on the other hand, might be able to make things go faster if they smooth out their permitting process and move it along a little quicker for folks to do business in this city.
CTNW: And the Port's working with the City on that?
Bobby: The Port always works together with the City
CTNW: And lastly, is there anything that you would like to share or say that we did not ask you?
Bobby: We live in a pretty great place, and I think all of us that are here are very lucky. I think the people that live in this county are very loyal to it and do a great job. I would like the chance to continue my work as a port commissioner for the people of Whatcom County. Vote for Bobby Briscoe in November!
You can find out more about Bobby Briscoe and his campaign at www.briscoeforport.com.