The Port of Olympia hit a bumpy patch when a sharp drop in exports of logs and imports of fracking sands left a big hole in the agency’s 2015 operations budget.
This is just one of the challenges the port faces as it tries to develop its multiple economic arms — including a deep water port, a marina, an airport and a business park. One port-funded study in 2011 said that its total operations supported 7,249 jobs and $1.1 billion of business revenue in the community.
In the next year or two, the three-member commission could decide whether to invest a few million dollars in building a marina fuel dock on Budd Inlet. It also could develop a food hub with cold storage or food processing options for farmers near the port’s airport in Tumwater.
And it urgently needs to find ways to diversify its cargo handling on the Olympia waterfront if it wants to steer the tax-subsidized agency onto a better financial footing.
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That’s a lot on anyone’s plate and a smart, thorough and skeptical discussion is needed for each of these challenges. An infusion of new blood and new smarts is needed to do that.
That is why we are strongly endorsing Joe Downing, a financial examiner for the state’s bank regulating agency, and narrowly endorsing E.J. Zita, a physics professor at The Evergreen State College, for two seats on the port commission.
Election Day is Nov. 3.
Both Downing and Zita are political newcomers. But East Coast native Downing volunteered with a port advisory committee for six years. Zita, who farms near the Tumwater airport, has been involved in discussions about future land uses around the airport and business-park holdings there.
Downing and Zita bring different skills and a different agenda to the part-time job. They both see environmental benefits to building a fuel dock for boaters at Swantown Marina, but Zita is more skeptical about whether it can pay for itself. They share an interest in developing a food hub. Diversity of viewpoint is important, and our hope is that if both are elected they’ll examine every angle of an issue.
Downing is challenging two-term incumbent George Barner, who served four terms as a Thurston County commissioner.
While we admire Barner’s service, it was startling to learn last week — from Downing’s accusation during a debate, which Barner did not dispute — that Barner has 12,000 unread email messages in his port account and sent just over two-dozen emails as a commissioner. He admitted he hasn’t known how to use his email.
That ought to crystalize for voters that Barner’s days as commissioner should be over.
The other port race is a closer call. Zita and Jerry Farmer, co-owner of a radio station with deep ties to civic groups, are running for the two-year unexpired term of Sue Gunn. An environmentalist, Gunn resigned in the spring for health reasons and was replaced by Michelle Morris, who is not running.
Farmer is a strong candidate with good people skills and knowledge of port operations. He agrees with Zita on developing a food hub but is less committed than she is to environmental sustainability.
Long term, Downing, Farmer and Barner believe the port has some kind of future as a seaport on Olympia’s north peninsula, and we agree. Farmer is committed to diversifying by finding “boutique” cargo niches that reduce the port’s reliance on just a couple of primary cargos.
Zita disagrees on the port’s focus on shipping; she wants to do more with solar power on the port peninsula, which would require a lot more study. She points to millions of dollars of property and equipment owned by the port and questions why it loses money.
Farmer and Barner think the port could do more to draw cruise ships to our area.
Still, Downing is our clear choice in the District 1 race.
In District 3, we prefer Zita simply because the port needs an outsider to serve as a watchdog and skeptic. We think Zita, a scientist, can play that role better than would Farmer who, like Downing, appears to line up more closely with the third commissioner, Bill McGregor.
Editor’s note: This has been updated to clarify the number of terms Barner served as Thurston County commissioner.