Saturday, October 26, 2013

The GPT Mailer...and the Economic Future of Bellingham

In this week's Cascadia Weekly you can find the GPT "Report to the Community" Volume 4 as an insert. The entire flyer is essentially a sop to the "Pro-Jobs Majority" who want to "Build Jobs Here". I don't dispute that many of their answers may be factual. I don't dispute that a coal export terminal will build jobs and increase the flow of wealth to some.  However, cities can build many different types of wealth. Choosing to engage in multi-billion dollar Asian trade will have consequences.

I'm sure there are some of you reading this who have been raised in cities with busy, industrial ports. Although there are a lot of ports on West Coast, there are three cities on the U.S. West Coast known for their international export activity; specifically trade from containerized shipping. In terms of containers and tonnage processed they are generally ranked like this:
  • Long Beach CA
  • Oakland, CA
  • Tacoma WA

These rankings change every year and many major cities have very busy  and competitive ports (e.g. Los Angeles, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, B.C.). Like the previous three cities, industrial port activity doesn't quite dominate metropolitan economic activity in the larger cities quite as much as shipping 48 - 56 metric tons of coal each year will in Bellingham, WA.   Geographically and economically, Bellingham's future is more likely to resemble Long Beach, Oakland, or Tacoma than the larger West Coast port cities. Port traffic is a big business on the west coast specifically because of trade with Asia. San Pedro Bay (LA/Long Beach), Oakland, and Puget Sound reputedly handle fifty percent of the nation's containerized shipping.  Since I was raised in a port city (Oakland), let me  talk a little bit about how the wealth that flows through a port city configures the urban economic landscape. Perhaps if some of you were raised in Long Beach or Tacoma, you can add your experiences to the comments of this post.

You may think that because Bellingham is some distance from Cherry Point that county economic activity will not define Bellingham. Such a thought would be fallacious. Port traffic redefines the very nature of adjacent metropolitan areas. Some factors are desirable: international ports bring international exposure: languages, culture, wealth, foreign deposits, good cheap restaurants and lots of associated commercial activity. In our adulthood, for example, both my brother and I had employment with APL (American President Lines), a shipping logistics company with a long history and an even longer geographic reach.

Once under the exposure of international shipping traffic  your city populace, your banking system, your production systems, your quality of life, your cultural life will really never be the same.  My family hails from Oakland for four generations. East Oakland was once a quiet place like Lynden, WA.  My Italian-Swiss great-grandmother  who raised chickens and rabbits, and grew corn and canned quince and tomatoes, once told me the only things here when "she and George arrived in Oakland" were "corn fields and Indians". It's been awhile since corn fields and Indians were last seen in Oakland, CA. My grandfather was a stevedore who worked the docks and held the strike lines all through the '20s, '30s and '40s. Post WWII mechanization of the docks changed the face of world ports forever. There hasn't been much looking back.

Ports are routinely more automated, more linked to rail, more guided by 'logistics'. Ships are routinely built larger and more powerful, manned by smaller and smaller crews, many of them foreign. The waterfront landscape has changed since my grandfather sat in his living room with Harry Bridges, my grandmother tending his wounds from the strike lines during "The Great Maritime Strike" of 1934. The title of  longshoreman essentially denoted a different profession after WWII. My grandfather spent WWII on his back in the hold of cargo ships, moving 55 gallon drums of oil for the war effort with his legs and feet.  'Stevedores' , as they were called then, were so valuable to the nation's war effort they were exempt from the armed forces draft.

We may have reached the conclusion that the internet is largely responsible for the globalization of the world economy. Certainly true in part. However, the not so humble modern cargo container and associated technologies may well be a more important contributor to globalization than all the undersea fiber optic cable ever put down. Below is my attempt to provide a future snapshot of an economy that has 1  or 2 "PanaMax" ships passing through each day. Some of these conclusions will be bold and 'real-politik'.  The future we now face for the first time came to the city of my birth long ago.

(1) Trade with Asia ultimately creates Asian wealth in your city and banking system. You can imagine the reasons for this, but chief among them is that China becomes our city's most important client and benefactor.

(2) International trade always begets international finance because that's the way the global economic system works. Increasing finance houses in Bellingham will lend a cosmopolitan air to the city. Expect housing prices to accelerate.

(3) Our connections with Vancouver and Seattle will increase. Both cities have extensive port and international trade already.  Expect much of Bellingham to become more metropolitan. Think skyscrapers and office space; maybe even light rail.

(4) One cannot trade extensively with Asia without exposure to "Golden Triangle" heroin; especially in a port city with containerized shipping. Coal Ports do not necessarily imply "containerized shipping" , but the effect will be the same.

I expect the immediate effect of a coal export terminal on the city of Bellingham to be disastrous, but  continued growth financed by tax dollars and wealth associated with coal exports will overcome the initial economic shock of having 18 - 19 130 car coal trains running through your city center daily. Certain North County areas may suffer more economic conditions accustomed to carbon fuel production.

This will all be something new for Whatcom County. The top dog won't be raspberries and dairy farms any more. It surprises me to see the provincial North County  promoting this type of change in the name of "Build Jobs Here". But then maybe they don't exactly understand what they've signed up for. For some of us, this is simply "back to the future" we escaped from. There will be some indecision if "Pro-Jobs Majority" wins county council seats. Some hard decisions may have to be made if "Authentic Bellingham" is about to enter a time tunnel to a metropolitan future. Maybe, armed with that vision of future already, ex-urbans like myself will just deal ourselves in.