After waiting nearly a month for responses, the city is now reviewing qualifications documents submitted by potential developers for the Gateway property – but the application pile isn’t very deep.
Despite a fair amount of initial interest in the prospect of forming a public-private partnership with the city utilizing the 28-acre former airport property, only two candidates have officially thrown their hats into the ring by submitting a request for qualification (RFQ).
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t have more to choose from,” said Blaine City Council member Bonnie Onyon, expressing her concern over the limited developer choices.
“Our vision for the Gateway property was very specific,” said Jim Hebert, consultant for the project. “We were looking for advanced manufacturing or medical facilities to be included in the RFQ. And while some approached us about projects such as Costco warehouses or cold storage facilities, which are very good from an investor’s standpoint, we were looking for facilities that would encourage livable wages and sustainable types of employment.”
Hebert said even though some of the early respondents suggested they could make that kind of venture happen, “it was not in the best interest of Blaine to be an experiment.”
Slim pickings is normal in these types of situations, Hebert assured the economic development committee at their April 4 meeting. “There’s always a lot of initial interest right off the bat, then they get into the thinking process and the assessment of competition and it gets quickly narrowed down to just a few,” he said. “I’ve seen this on other projects, even significantly larger ones.”
The two prospective candidates have two very different endgames in mind. “They came in with very different responses,” said city manager Dave Wilbrecht. “Both have creative ideas about the use of space, but in the end, the projects have to pencil out and make money.”
RFQ documents were submitted by U.S.-based developers InterPacific Consulting and Development Group as well as a Canada-based partnership comprised of Bill Wright and Michael Louie, who dubbed their proposal “Blaine Connected.”
Blaine Connected’s proposal was decidedly more substantial and on-point with the RFQ’s guidelines. Wilbrecht pointed out that InterPacific did not even respond to some of the RFQ’s requests.
“I’ve reviewed a lot of proposals over the years and nothing irks me more than someone not responding to the questions,” said Blaine Public Works Director Ravyn Whitewolf.
“They also seem to have shifted the focus,” said Port of Bellingham’s economic development specialist Dodd Snodgrass, who is a member of the Economic Development Committee, referring to InterPacific Consulting and Development Group’s desire to focus on developing downtown Blaine and the harbor, and shift city services such as the Blaine Police Department to the Gateway parcel.
Snodgrass is acting as an advisor for the Blaine Economic Development Committee.
“They came in with this concept before,” Wilbrecht said. “They see downtown and the harbor area as having the most capacity, and while we had considered opening it up before, our focus really is this property at the moment.”
Wilbrecht said that both proposals did look beyond the borders of the Gateway property for their development plans.
While both groups have previously worked with governments, neither has tackled a public-private partnership such as the city has proposed. “We’ll have to take the lead in that,” Wilbrecht said.
Blaine Connected’s proposal was more specific to the Gateway property, detailing what they would like to see happen with the property, Wilbrecht said. In their proposal, the group indicated that they would like to create a mixed-use facility that would be more retail oriented for the area, but would also provide freestanding buildings that could “facilitate the medical facility envisioned in the Hebert Report.”
A prime consideration of any potential development project for the parcel was how it would be financed.
“One of the requirements that we had was that we needed to have confidence in their financial ability,” Hebert said. “I was very straightforward when I talked to both candidates.”
Although committee members appeared to be leaning towards Blaine Connected’s proposal, they agreed that it would be in the best interest of the city to interview both developers. Committee members agreed that no matter the outcome of the interview process they were likely to learn something that might be beneficial to the project.
The economic development committee members will interview the candidates on April 24. “We’ll start the process with these interviews and see what they bring to the table, and then we’ll go knock on doors and look at the properties they’ve developed and do interviews with the people they do business with,” Wilbrecht said.
“We can’t control the market, but we can do our part by doing this due diligence so we can get up in front of city council with a level of certainty when we make our recommendation,” he added.