The race for the two seats on the Port of Olympia commission has attracted six candidates, making this the most active port primary in years.
On Tuesday, voters in the two districts at stake — District 1 and District 3 — will decide who advances to the general election in November.
The District 1 incumbent is George Barner, 73, who is seeking a third term on the port commission. Before joining the port in 2008, he was probably best known for his role as a Thurston County commissioner from 1977 to 1992. His two challengers are Joe Downing, 61, a senior financial examiner for the state Department of Financial Institutions, and Joseph Treacy Kreger, 57, an executive chef at St. Andrew’s House on Hood Canal.
In District 3, there is no incumbent because Sue Gunn resigned earlier this year, and appointee Michelle Morris is not running. The challengers are E.J. Zita, 55, a longtime professor of physics and renewable energy at The Evergreen State College; Jerry Farmer, 62, co-owner and sales manager of radio station KRXY 94.5 FM; and Bob Jones, 68, a retired Army man, veterans advocate and consultant to small manufacturers that want to do business with defense contractors.
Larry Goodman dropped out of the District 3 race for health reasons, but his name is still on the ballot.
Whoever advances and eventually wins, however, will likely inherit a different port than in past years. Revenue at the marine terminal has fallen sharply because of lower oil prices, which has slowed the need for fracking sand imports, and a stronger U.S. dollar, which has made log exports more expensive.
The Olympian asked the candidates how they would address the revenue shortfall at the marine terminal.
DISTRICT 1Joe Downing
In addition to being a senior financial examiner, Downing also served on the port’s citizen advisory committee for six years. Downing said he is a strong supporter of the port and hates to see the drop in revenue at the marine terminal. The answer, as he sees it, is to diversify port cargoes, ensuring the port is protected against economic downturns.
He said ceramic proppants, also known as fracking sand, ties the port to one industry — the oil industry — while log exports are always subject to changes in international trade.
“The port needs to look harder at diversifying,” he said.
Downing has raised nearly $22,000 for his campaign, according to state Public Disclosure Commission data. Clydia Cuykendall, who also used to serve on the port’s citizens advisory committee, is Downing’s top cash contributor.
Joseph Treacy Kreger
Kreger is more skeptical about the marine terminal, saying he would take a serious look at whether it can continue as a viable enterprise.
“They have struggled for years,” said Kreger about the port, recalling the days when the port invested in two cranes that sat largely unused.
He said he wants an evaluation of the marine terminal’s real cost, including the cost to dredge regularly. Although he doesn’t want to lose longshore jobs, he wants to ensure that investing in the marine terminal is the best step for Thurston County residents.
“I’ve got to see the numbers,” he said. “If we’re investing $1 into the marine terminal, are we getting a $1.10 in return?”
Kreger has raised about $3,600, according to PDC data. His top cash contributor is Steve Wilcox of Blossom Enterprises. Former port commissioner Sue Gunn also has contributed to his campaign.
As with any business, ups and downs occur, Barner said, but that doesn’t mean you give up.
“We are a viable organization and we can put ourselves back in a solid position,” he said.
The port is doing that by actively talking to brokers and shippers about new cargo, he said. The port also is lobbying Congress to reinstate a tax credit for wind energy, which could result in wind blades returning to the port, he said.
He also praised the quality of the port’s longshore workers and port staff, saying they have done the right thing by deferring millions in capital investments to weather the shortfall in revenue.
“We’ll wait and see how it plays out,” said Barner about the marine terminal slowdown.
Barner has raised $3,000, according to PDC data. His top cash contributor is the Thurston Mason Lewis Central Labor Council.
DISTRICT 3E.J. Zita
Zita said the downturn at the marine terminal speaks to the need for better planning. “We need to take a hard look at how decisions are made at the port,” she said.
The port relies on shipping for income, but the marine terminal is a risky business that is not a reliable source of income, she said.
By involving citizens and local experts, the port can make good decisions about the right investments and the right business opportunities to pursue, and avoid the mistake of counting on making millions from fracking sand and log exports, Zita said.
“We can do that with a better planning process,” she said.
Zita has raised $5,600, according to PDC data. Her largest cash contributor is Thurston Environmental Voters. Gunn also has contributed to this campaign.
Farmer said the downturn in revenue at the marine terminal needs to be handled like any other business: When revenue drops off, you don’t go out of business, he said. Instead, you make adjustments and don’t abandon your core business.
“I’m perfectly comfortable continuing to have the marine terminal because it’s important to keep bringing dollars into our community,” he said.
But the port needs to diversify and seek out other cargoes, Farmer said. He also praised the port staff decision to defer some capital spending, but took issue with port critics who say the port should have seen this coming.
“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said.
Farmer has raised about $10,000, PDC data show. His top cash contributor is Ralph Lovelace. Lacey Mayor Andy Ryder and Lacey City Councilman Michael Steadman also have contributed to his campaign through their businesses.
Jones said one way to address the revenue shortfall at the marine terminal is to not be so reliant on the terminal, but to beef up other business units at the port. The port has four divisions, including its real estate division, which leases property.
Jones would like to see the port lease more property, including bringing more restaurant operators to its waterfront properties.
“I would encourage the property management department to go out into the marketplace and find more business opportunities to lease to,” he said.
Jones also would encourage port staff to seek new lines of cargo for the marine terminal, he said.
Jones has raised $500, PDC data show.