Bell Street Pier Project A Jewel In Seattle Port Crown

The Port of Seattle’s tax rates over the last five years have declined by 33 percent, while its revenues have increased by 34 percent. Incorrect numbers were published in Bruce Chapman’s column last Friday on the port’s new Bell Street project.
That large, curious structure you see growing up along the Seattle waterfront is one of the few contemporary testimonies to government’s ability to do something right; or to put it another way, to do something good and still get away with it.

Somehow, the Bell Street Pier, a multipurpose, $88 million creation of the Port of Seattle, has managed to go through the whole development process, right up to the interior work now under way, without raising the ire of any economic interest, environmental body or taxpayer watchdog group.

Knock on wood; it doesn’t open until next June.

But already little bands of potential users are lining up to get a hard-hat tour of a civic facility that is sure to attract international attention. Ordinary folks are beginning to ask about it, too. When a class of fifth graders from the “TOPS” program at Seward School on Capitol Hill walked down to a parking lot above the site recently, they were given a description of the project that left them reporting back like the legendary blind man who encountered an elephant. Each one had a different impression of the beast.

Some thought it was going to be a maritime museum. Others said a fish-packing factory where boats from Alaska would dock. Still others recalled that it would be a fish restaurant, while one believed it was a pier for docking cruise ships. And one even remembered it was supposed to host “meetings.” (Even in fifth grade they know about meetings.)

In fact, it is each of those things at once, which is typical of Seattle’s desire to have it all. And why not? The attempt seems likely to succeed. Indeed, in addition to the project now nearing completion, construction starts soon on a private hotel and apartment complex on the upland side of Alaska Way.

From a design standpoint, it is hard to see what the project’s final outside appearance will be. But you can tell that it picks up the vernacular architectural style of the rest of the waterfront and the nearby Pike Place Market. On the inside, even in the presently raw construction innards of the Bell Harbor International Conference Center, when you look west across the Sound from any of the numerous windows you know it’s going to feel like a large, beautiful jewel box.

The 290-seat Conference Center auditorium, with the ability to handle six foreign languages in simultaneous translation and to conduct long-distance video-conferencing, will be the state-of-the-art leader worldwide. There is no comparable facility yet in North America.

The reason the Port of Seattle can pull off this economic development project when so many other governmental units have struggled is that few others have any money these days. No other (that I can think of) has a record of reducing its tax rates over the past five years – 3.3 percent – and yet raising its overall revenues steeply – 3.4 percent – in the same period.

There also has been excellent teamwork among all the parties responsible for making this multifaceted operation work. And teamwork, as the Mariners have shown us, is what Seattle craves.

Certainly we need it in the development of Seattle as a winning international city. The rising threat of trade protectionism on the national scene is as serious as at any time in recent memory. The collapse of the peso in Mexico has given NAFTA a bad name, albeit unfairly. While Washington state apple exports to Mexico, for example, shot up to 8 million boxes in the first year after NAFTA was enacted, sales dropped to an expected 4 million boxes this year because of the Mexican recession. What should have been a year to expand free trade is becoming a year of surprising defensiveness.

That is all the more reason for international policy to regain high priority attention in the councils of government at both state and local levels in the Northwest, and within the private sector, too.

— An annual “Leadership Conference” of the Chamber of Commerce is meeting today in Vancouver, B.C., on the theme of “global competitiveness.” Among the priorities should be further improvements in coordinating the disparate governmental and private programs in international trade and public policy.

— A tourism conference earlier this week already pointed up the continuing need to make political allies elsewhere on the West Coast as we ask Congress to get rid of the 19th century Passenger Service Act (better called the Passenger Dis-Service Act) that prevents foreign cruise ships from coming here.

— A new international airline connection is about to be announced, raising the question of how we might better package the assorted shopping, cultural and sightseeing opportunities of the whole Puget Sound region for foreign visitors, especially in the winter – and how we can do a better job of collaborating on tourism promotion with our “Cascadia” neighbors in British Columbia.

One of the best uses of the innovative Bell Harbor project, therefore, would be to inspire us to accomplish similiar teamwork in bolstering this area’s broad public policy commitment to internationalism.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.