Interview by Mike McKenzie
The Port of Bellingham has hired its new Director of Economic Development, Don Goldberg, who previously held a similar position with the Port of Portland. He sat down with Business Pulse recently for a conversation about his background and vision for Whatcom County business.
Business Pulse: You came here from Portland. Are you from there?
Don Goldberg: No, I grew up mostly in New York City, in the Bronx. However, I finished high school in Milwaukee, then went to Beloit College in Wisconsin, transferred and graduated from the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse with a BS degree in business.
I’ve traveled to 75 countries and lived all over including Vancouver, B.C., where I attended culinary school. I’ve lived in Vail, Colorado; Banff in Alberta, Canada; a number of places in California, and then worked my way up the coast to Oregon. And now here. I’ve lived on West Coast 37 years—the last 17 in Oregon.
Will your role here be similar to what it was at the Port of Portland?
There I was Director of Business Development in charge of both domestic and international development. I managed the Economic Development Department and the Property Dev team; we were the largest land developer in the state. Another group marketed industrial properties for the Port.
There’s a major difference here. The role here takes an opposite approach from there, in that I advocated only for the Port of Portland. Here, the Port of Bellingham is the state-designated agency for economic development, therefore the benefits to our port are secondary to the state’s. This means I’ll market all of Whatcom County to create and bring in better jobs, and they’ll be no more or less Port-centric than for any other part of the county.
Have you been here long enough to observe what lies ahead for your position at the Port of Bellingham?
I accepted the position and moved here a month before it started, and I rode all around the area with staff on a real-estate tour. I’ve gotten enough of a feel to be aware that the county is quite complex and diverse in its makeup.
Mine is a newly-created role funded by the City, the Port, the County, and even partially by the State. Remember the line in the movie Braveheart when Mel Gibson says, “Unite us! Unite the clans!”? We’ll Create partnerships and unite the diversity of our region to create a more powerful product. One of the most powerful things we have is that we our diverse sectors—ag, maritime, tech, manufacturing, and more.
Not only will we be uniting and creating partnerships, we need to answer the question, “Why Whatcom County?” We want a clear vision of who we are so that anybody outside the region will see us more than simply a really nice place.
Your resume reflects an interesting variety of career positions, in a wide range of areas. How do those experiences benefit you in this role?
My work with Collier’s International (a commercial real-estate services company operating in 68 countries) gave me a lot of experience dealing in commercial real estate, which is a high priority for the Port. And I attended an executive-coaching school in Seattle and went into consulting; that has prepared me to meet, listen, learn, and gain understanding—the main approach I will take with stakeholders here. I also worked for a land trust. And all of these have been executive-level positions.
What other experiences will come to bear in your work in the county?
As Senior Project Manager for the Trust for Public Land in Portland for seven years, where I worked before the Port of Portland, I was able to use my skill sets to do something positive for people. We established a nature conservancy, we raised money for timber preservation, and we won a coveted honor—the Collins Award for Conservation.
My career reflects an unusual hybrid in that that I’ve spent the majority of it in the for-profit private sector, but also several years in nonprofit, and now several in government. I understand the strengths of each one and how to bring those benefits forward.
Name some highlights in Portland under your watch.
Probably the biggest one that people here can relate to was a huge project at PDX (Portland’s international airport), when I was Director of Business Development in 2015. Also, we formed a team for industrial development, both domestic and international, and sold $60 million worth of industrial property that included two large Amazon facilities.
What’s the team look like here?
I report to Executive Director Rob Fix. Right now, there’s one person on my team, but we’ll hire two more pretty soon for a team of four.
Although you work for the Port, part of your salary is paid by the City, County, and State. Will you be squeezed by cross-purposes, politically?
Not at all. The way you deal with politically hot issues is to find middle ground, rather than taking an adversarial position.
What are your top priorities out of the gate?
Retain, expand, grow. Keep what we have, and expand into areas around them. I’m all about deliverables and making positive changes, not just generating more reports.
Do you see an immediate need?
More high tech. Everybody wants those companies. And affordable housing. The cost of living here is high. Great quality of life, yes, but that’s not what keeps people here. Drive the economy, and they will stay.
The news release announcing you reveals that you’re aware of the Bellingham Waterfront District redevelopment. Any thoughts?
The Port has done a great job with partnerships on that project, working with the City. Harcourt, the developer, has a positive economical process. We can really take some big steps forward. I said in the press release that this revitalization is a critical part of the regional economy as a major stimulator for growth throughout the county. And we can all push together to have it happen faster.
In a nutshell, what’s your vision for your new undertaking?
Programmatic action. Deepen the learning, forward the action.