Port celebrates completion of airport project

Published on Wed, Feb 26, 2014 by Brandy Kiger Shreve

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Frequent flyers take note. Bellingham’s airport has arrived.

On February 20, the Port of Bellingham celebrated the completion of the airport’s $38.6 million terminal expansion with a ribbon cutting, a lot of talk about potential and much rejoicing over baggage handling.

“Probably one of the more popular enhancements of this project is the baggage claim. It used to be a metal slide outside, and
 we thought it was a huge improvement to put a roof over that, but it was still just a metal slide,” Rob Fix said, to the laughter of the gathered crowd. “Now that we have a carousel we can call ourselves a ‘real’ airport.”

Since the Port of Bellingham, which owns and operates the airport, began the design process in 2008, the terminal has steadily grown from 27,000 square feet to 105,000 square feet, and now boasts not one, but two baggage claims, a lobby with eight boarding gates, a sit-down restaurant and an expanded ticket lobby with 20 ticketing stations. 

The expanded space is designed to make the airport more efficient, more accessible and more comfortable for travelers. The port has added 12,000 square feet of seating area in the departure lounge and can now accommodate 858 passengers. “It’s a huge upgrade for us,” said Emily Tuma, operations supervisor for the airport. “The whole airport is now a quarter mile from end to end, and we have the capacity to grow by 40 percent more. It was amazing to us when it opened.”

Instead of relying on taxpayer money to fund the expansion, port commissioner Michael McCauley said they turned to bonds
 and relied on passenger fees and business leases to foot the bill for the multi-million dollar endeavor. 

“This is a homegrown project,” McAuley said at the ribbon cutting. “It’s been fully paid for by the airport users and businesses along the way, with no tax money, and we’re proud of that. We were nervous about the pay as you go method, but last year we had more than 1 million people come through here.”

The airport, which now offers 11 non-stop flights from its terminal, has seen a 400 percent increase in traffic since 2007, when only three gates (one was a mobile unit) were in operation. 

U.S. Representative Rick Larsen (D-1st District) said that the airport expansion has a larger impact than just on the number of travelers who come through Whatcom County, and lauded the work the Port has 
done to facilitate and anticipate growth in the region. “You can’t have a big-league economy with small-league infrastructure,” he said. “This is the kind of investment it takes to help local economies grow,” adding that $70 million was spent in Whatcom County in 2013 because of the airport and the service it provides. 

McAuley added that more than 600 jobs had been created due to the expansion, and more than $15 million of state tax revenues had been generated.

“It’s opened up a lot of great opportunities,” said Whatcom County Council member Carl Weimer. “There are now a number of people who are able to live in Bellingham and enjoy the quality of life here and still work in other places. This is their commute.”

The next step in the expansion will be to create a visitor’s center inside the airport, so that inbound passengers can see what Whatcom County has to offer. “This is where Whatcom County will touch every person who flies into this airport,” McAuley said.