Willows Inn Braces for Lummi Ferry Showdown

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The Lummi ferry dispute threatens mainlanders' access to wonderboy Wetzel.
The future of the ferry that gets Whatcom County residents to and from Lummi Island has been cast into doubt due to two main players--county (the tenant) and tribe (the landlord)--being locked in a contentious lease renegotiation. The tribe wants the county to foot the bill for $10 million in road improvements, which Lummi Nation chairman Cliff Cultee portrays as a safety issue related to ferry traffic, if it wants to keep shoving off from Gooseberry Point, while the county feels that's too much to pay. The deadline to resolve this problem, which has attracted the interest of Congressman Rick Larsen and Senators Murray and Cantwell, is April 11.

Caught in the middle are Lummi Island business owners like Riley Starks (the reservation is on the mainland, while the 900 residents of the island itself are predominantly nontribal), who owns the pristine Willows Inn and its eponymous restaurant, which lately has attracted kudos from the likes of The New York Times on account of its wunderkind chef, 24-year-old Blaine Wetzel, who once worked for the legendary Rene Redzepi.

In addition to owning Willows Inn, Starks sits on Whatcom County's ferry task force. Should ferry service be crippled, he says he's been in touch with "a small charter boat company" to get foodies across the channel to his lodge, but adds that "I don't think it's gonna be needed. If April comes and the ferry runs as normal, I think that it would be the worst P.R. mistake ever if the Tribe somehow blockaded the ferry."

Starks says the county owns the terminal, so if push came to shove and the Lummis wanted to disrupt ferry service, the scene would be pretty pioneeriffic. "They'd have to blockade in the water, because it's the tide flats [near the dock] that they own," says Starks. "They really don't have anything to gain. It [the $10 million] is not enough money to threaten the goodwill they have with the greater public with their casino and everything. It'd just be the worst blunder in history. I think it's a bluff maybe that can be called. The whole idea for us is to get the feds [involved], because it's really a federal matter vis-a-vis any tribe. It's gonna be an interesting couple weeks."

Lummi Nation staff attorney Diana Bob agrees with Starks that such a dire scenario will hopefully be averted. When pressed to speculate what would happen if an agreement is not reached, she says only, "We're not there yet. We're hopeful that the county will come back with a solution and we'll reach an agreement."

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