Progress, not perfection, at Port of Olympia

A section of Port of Olympia’s “A” dock at the pump-out station one site under consideration for a proposed port fuel dock
A section of Port of Olympia’s “A” dock at the pump-out station one site under consideration for a proposed port fuel dock Staff file, 2012

The Port of Olympia is soon putting its foot in the door of northeast Thurston County for the first time.

We’ll admit to skepticism about port commissioners’ decision last fall to buy three warehouses in the Meridian Campus district for $6.5 million. But Commissioner Joe Downing makes a case that this taxpayer-supported purchase leaves the port better positioned to assist economic development in more areas of Thurston County.

Though the deal hasn’t formally closed, it is one of several actions initiated by the port in 2016 that are promising, but which easily were lost in the shuffle of a busy year. The past year also featured some very public fights among the three commissioners, port leaders and the community over port cargos — including sands used largely in North Dakota for the oil and natural gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Despite rocky moments, port commissioners are making headway. One big step in the making is an update to the port’s strategic plan. It is scheduled for a final adoption vote March 13.

Downing said in a meeting with The Olympian Editorial Board this week that the port’s retooled mission has three overlapping goals. One is to focus on improving economic opportunity for all of Thurston County; another is to continue the port’s environmental stewardship, which includes the cleanup of polluted lands such as property near the Hands On Children’s Museum that is being converted to multifamily housing; a third is to enhance community assets that range from trails to a marina, a shipping terminal and an airport in Tumwater.

The purchase of 60,000 square feet of warehouse space in Lacey’s Meridian Campus district is the first port foray into the county’s second largest city. This, along with port grants for development efforts in smaller south county communities, should help fulfill the port’s mission of giving an economic push to more areas of the county. The port already has significant holdings on Olympia’s waterfront and in Tumwater where it owns warehouses and a regional airport.

Importantly, one of the Lacey warehouses is potentially available for use as an incubator for fledgling businesses.

We’ll judge the wisdom of this real estate investment by the results. If the soon-to-close purchase goes according to plan, it should start providing immediate cash flow with a 7 percent return on investment, according to Ed Galligan, port executive director.

Other progress at the port is construction of a fuel dock at Swantown Marina in the east bay of Budd Inlet. The port will operate the facility with staff trained in fuel dispensing. The investment is expected to pay for itself over 30 years based on a target of 270,000 gallons of boat fuel sales per year.

Again, results will determine the value of this investment. This should cut down on accidental fuel leaks into the sea and provide convenience to local and out-of-town boaters. Fuel dispensing could begin by early summer.

Looking ahead we hope to see more diversity in port cargoes — in addition to shipments of gold ore, organic corn from Turkey and additional shipments of cattle to Asia.

We also hope for civility during port commission discussions. There were messy fights between the relatively new commissioners Joe Downing and E.J. Zita, who in 2016 were starting their first year in public office.

The port has hired Olympia-based consultant Wendy Fraser to help staff and commissioners improve their interactions — and, let’s hope, the port’s communications with the public. The goal is to hold difficult discussions without attacking others (this also goes for the public that publicly criticizes the port).

For an organization like the port that lives in a political fish bowl, none of this is easy. The watchword should always be progress — not perfection.