The eclectic city is finally stepping into its future — more than a decade after losing the toilet-paper mill stuck to its shoe.
From the point in time a half-century ago, when Bellingham, long the leading outpost in the northwest corner of the Northwest, began to transition from a resource-extraction economy to its present, softer focus, it’s always been a study in contrasts.
Today, “The ’Ham,” as it’s known to locals, is a politically liberal, geographically blessed, environmentally and social-justice-aware place. The official vehicle is a full-suspension bike, and unseemly numbers of people will gather nightly at a city pier just to watch the sun go down.
But strong roots of a rougher, conservative, cork-boots-and-gillnets heritage still run strong, as does a decided hippie-tinged midlife. It is, in some sense, a university town with bark on its floors, and the Georgia-Pacific plant that once dominated its central waterfront was key to the old image.
The 2007 closure of the last vestige of a heavy-industrial past, a G-P toilet-paper mill, marked a turning point in time. It also prompted a bit of memorable mirth, as the relative of a plant employee, asked how the plant closure would affect him, deadpanned: “I’m going to have to go out and buy toilet paper for the first time in my adult life,” adding: “I don’t even know how much toilet paper costs.”
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So central was G-P to the old image of downtown Bellingham that current, seemingly odd street patterns — notably the one-way, timed-light corridors of Holly Street, inbound, and Chestnut, outbound — were created to accommodate mini-rush hours from shifts at the plant, which once employed thousands.
As noted in our cover story this week, the plant closure also unleashed a burst of optimism about the rare opportunity that this 240-odd-acre blank canvas on the central waterfront afforded to fully remake a historic seafront town.
As a resident history buff, I’ve watched the decade-plus that has gone by since — marked, mostly, by nonaction at the waterfront — with great interest. And with construction work finally launching after many fits and nonstarts, it seemed a good time to take stock of lessons learned from the pending urban makeover of Bellingham — and what stories the new face and, especially, its slow formation, tell about the unquestionably eclectic body politic beneath it.