With today's plant closure, Bellingham wistfully marks the end of an era but also the beginning of big changes for its waterfront.

Share story

BELLINGHAM — For about as long as anyone around here can remember, it was a twice-yearly spectacle: Hundreds of cars would line up outside Georgia-Pacific’s massive warehouse on Bellingham Bay, all driven by past and present millworkers waiting to get enough free toilet paper to last most families a year.

But as they gathered here last August to queue up and catch up, no one knew it would be the last time.

In September, Georgia-Pacific management announced the community’s last mill would shut down for good, and the remaining 211 employees would be out of work. That deadline finally arrived this morning.

At about 3 a.m., the last rolls of toilet tissue were to be shrink-wrapped and boxed, bringing to a close a 150-year history that began when the first sawmill was built in what is now the heart of downtown Bellingham.

“It is the end of an era,” Mayor Dan Pike said of the plant that manufactured tissue for the Angel Soft, MD and Quilted Northern brands. “Georgia-Pacific was a big presence, physically and psychologically, in town. It was like Boeing was to Seattle in the 1970s — if Georgia-Pacific hiccupped, everyone noticed.”

Yet it’s also a moment of optimism and hope for this growing community of 75,000 people.

By the end of next year, the tissue mill will be demolished, paving the way for a transformation of Bellingham’s working waterfront into a diverse development overlooking the bay. City leaders plan to draw on maritime tradition to create a public playground and a place for shipbuilders and marine researchers.

“It’s the start of a big something new,” said Richard Vanderway, a curator at the Whatcom Museum.

A major presence

With manufacturing in 40 states, the Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific is one of the country’s leading distributors of pulp, paper, packaging and building products. The company bought the Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Co. back in 1963, taking over pulp and tissue mills that dated back to 1925 on the Whatcom Waterway, which leads into Bellingham Bay.

In its heyday, Georgia-Pacific’s Bellingham operation included the state’s largest ethanol distillery, a research lab and a chlorine plant. Bellingham also held the title as the country’s biggest producer of lignin, a waste product of pulp making used for hundreds of industrial applications.

At one time, 1,200 people worked for Georgia-Pacific here. But times change, and by the late 1990s only the pulp and tissue mills were still open.

Then in December 2000, electricity prices spiked to $3,500 a megawatt hour, and Georgia-Pacific shut down its Bellingham mills for three days. The company ended up closing its pulp mill for good the following March.

“Our employees have known our facilities have been sort of on the edge, and 2001 was a big shock,” said Chip Hilarides, the general manager of the Bellingham tissue mill. “People knew it was only a matter of time” before the tissue mill closed too, he said.

And practically everyone both in Bellingham and at Georgia-Pacific’s corporate headquarters were surprised at how long workers managed to keep the mill operational on a shoestring.

Time of transition

Millworkers Loni Wiebeand Juan Garcia have been tapped by their union to help the remaining employees write the next chapters in their lives, whether that means school, jobs at local petroleum refineries or work at Georgia-Pacific mills in other states.

“I’m getting sadder … and I haven’t been sleeping very well the last few days,” said Garcia, 38. “But I probably won’t break down until I have to say my goodbyes.”

Both Wiebe and Garcia are Bellingham natives who say their co-workers are like family to them.

Still, while it’ll be tough to find jobs that pay as well as Georgia-Pacific did, they both join many others in town who express hope that the mill site will become an environmentally friendly jewel linking downtown with the waterfront for the first time.

“I’d be upset if they tore this up and put a cement plant here,” said Wiebe, 40. “But that’s not going to happen.”

In a complex deal involving the company, the city and the Port of Bellingham, Georgia-Pacific agreed to transfer 137 acres of waterfront land to the Port, which will take over the liability for the massive environmental cleanup needed to make the contaminated land reusable.

It will take at least five years and $84 million, said Mike Stoner, the Port’s environmental director. And on top of it all, the Port has purchased other industrial land along the bay, including an old petroleum plant, for a total of 220 acres, Stoner said.

“We’re really trying to turn a problem into a future opportunity,” he said.

Stoner predicts it could take 20 years, but when it’s done, there will be a new marina and 30 acres of parks as well as restaurants, shops, condos, a marine center and boat- and ship-building facilities.

The community also has been trying to woo the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to relocate its Pacific research fleet to Bellingham from Seattle. And Western Washington University is interested in moving its environmental college to the waterfront, Stoner said.

While dozens of people have already called the Port to ask when they can buy a condo, many others, such as museum curator Vanderway, are trying to keep it all in perspective. They’re still waiting to see the waterfront master plan, scheduled to be unveiled sometime in the spring.”We’re kind of taking a breath in history here while it’s redefined,” Vanderway said. “Whatever goes in there is going to affect everything in Bellingham.”

Vanderway’s view of the mill from the museum’s windows isn’t the only thing that’s going to change: He won’t be getting any more free toilet paper from his older brother, a retired millworker.

“I’m going to have to go out and buy toilet paper for the first time in my adult life,” he said.

“I don’t even know how much toilet paper costs.”

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com