Port’s executive director has his eye on the future
By Steve Guntli, August 21, 2013, The Northern Light
A young seagull, gray and tufted with downy fluff, waddles across the roof of the Port of Bellingham’s Roeder Avenue office. The port’s executive director Rob Fix said he has been observing the bird’s progress over the last few weeks, waiting for the gull to find his wings.
The bird hatched near the building’s air conditioning unit, and has been gradually venturing away from the nest, cautiously approaching the eaves and looking down into the building’s courtyard, he said.
“He’s at a point now where he’s about to fly,” Fix said. “Any day now he’s going to take off. It’s really cool watching him get brave.”
We pause for a moment to watch the little guy, to see if today is the day. No such luck, but Fix’s enthusiasm over the gull’s journey is both genuine and infectious, and he appears to use that same enthusiasm to tackle his job.
In the middle of a busy week, Fix is planning the port’s yearly budget and preparing for an upcoming public hearing regarding the Whatcom Waterway Cleanup project. If the stress is affecting him, it doesn’t show in his laid-back demeanor.
November will mark the end of Fix’s first official year as executive director of the port, but that doesn’t include the seven months he served as interim director following the departure of his predecessor Charlie Sheldon.
Fix was considered something of a surprise choice when the port commission announced his appointment – his name wasn’t listed among the three executives being considered for the position – but the port’s former chief financial officer convinced commissioners he was capable of taking the reins. After successfully negotiating a land swap arrangement between the port and the city of Bellingham last October, the port commissioners were impressed enough to offer Fix the position full-time.
Managing the Port of Bellingham is a big responsibility that has far-reaching impacts for the county. The port oversees much of the transportation infrastructure in Whatcom County, including the Bellingham International Airport, the Bellingham Cruise Terminal, the Fairhaven train station, the harbors in Squalicum and Blaine, the Bellingham Shipping Terminal and smaller real estate projects throughout the county. While Fix wasn’t accustomed to the level of public scrutiny his new position receives, he’s adjusted to the challenge.
“As the CFO, I had a pretty good handle on most aspects of the business, but as CEO you’ve got to get out of your office more,” he said. “You’re not stuck behind a computer crunching numbers all the time, you get to get out and talk to people, and that’s a little more exciting than looking at numbers all day.”
One of Fix’s pet projects has been the expansion of the Bellingham International Airport. Fix recognized the need for a more utilized airport in Bellingham in 1999, before he even lived there. At the time, Fix was working in mergers and acquisitions for Red Lion Hotels in Bellevue and Springfield, Oregon, and to accommodate his busy travel schedule, he needed to live near an airport.
“My wife was born and raised here,” he said. “She wanted to live in Bellingham so when we had kids she would have her parents as a support group.”
“I looked at a map, and I said, ‘okay, I’ve got SEATAC, I’ve got Vancouver, I can fly out to just about anywhere,’ but one of the things I noticed when I was doing all that flying was a lack of direct flights out of our airport.”
Cut to 14 years later, and the Bellingham International Airport offers direct and connecting flights to several major destinations such as Seattle, Denver, Hawaii, Las Vegas and more.
“I’m very proud of the fact that the port has now addressed that, and now the businessmen who have to travel can do so much more conveniently,” he said.
Since 2010, the airport has added a new boarding gate, bringing its total up to five. It has also made significant improvements to its ticket counters, baggage claim and main passenger area. The airport now has service from Allegiant, Alaska and Frontier airlines.
“I think the area was underserved by direct flights,” Fix said. “Prior to Allegiant coming to town, we had flights going out to Seattle and that was it. If you wanted a direct flight, you had to go to Seattle.”
The expansion of the airport has been a priority for the port for the last few years, and Fix considers it his proudest accomplishment with the office to date.
“That project is on time, under budget and a great driver for the economy,” he said.
The airport expansion project is expected to be completed by February 2014. After that, the port’s next big project will be the Whatcom Waterway Cleanup project at the former Georgia Pacific factory site. The project is part of a sweeping, 40-year master plan to clean up the waterfront and convert it for commercial and residential uses. In the initial stages, the port will be focusing its energies on a ten-acre section of the waterway near downtown Bellingham.
“It’s a long-term plan,” Fix said. “That’s why the planning is so important. You’re going to have to make amendments and adjustments along the way, because we have no idea what the world’s going to look like in 15 to 20 years. But you try to do the best you can now, get something concrete that you can go by and start recruiting businesses down there.”
The port held its first public hearing for the project on August 20. Fix hopes that the city council and commissioners will approve the project by the end of this year.
While the port’s main areas of business tend to take place near the water, areas in eastern Whatcom County also benefit from port-sponsored projects. A core responsibility of the port is economic development in Whatcom County.
Recently, the port used a $20,000 county fund to bring high-speed internet to the Mt. Baker foothills, an area that includes Deming, Glacier and Maple Falls. Fix hopes improving connectivity in the area will stimulate economic growth.
“A lot of those businesses are stuck with dial-up, and those low speeds are obviously bad for commerce,” he said. “In order for them to participate in the economy they need to have the same tools that everyone else does.”
The port also maintains the Small City Economic Development Fund, which funnels $80,000 each year to help rural areas complete public works projects.
The port also owns the Sumas International Cargo Terminal. The site was founded in the late 1980s, and its proximity to the Canadian border makes it a good hub for international commerce.
The port is supported by county taxpayers to the tune of $6,719,000 per year (2013), representing 2.56 percent of county property taxes. In 2012, the port had more than $22 million in operating revenues with total revenues (taxes and other sources) of $33 million. It had total expenses of $39 million, including capital expenditures.
For the future, Fix said he plans to just keep doing his best to keep the port running smoothly.