Q&A: Gary Nelson, Port of Grays Harbor

Gary Nelson has been the executive director of the Port of Grays Harbor since 2000, coming from the forest products industry. He worked with major companies including Rayonier, DaPaul and Ross Simmons Hardwood. In his free time, he enjoys vegetable gardening, fishing and picking blackberries. Nelson lives in Hoquiam with his wife, Julie Gage, and two dogs, Odie and Bailey. He has three children: Ted, 24, Travis, 23, and Natalie, 20.

How did you get from the forest products industry to running the Port of Grays Harbor? What do you like about that work?

a. In my previous career I was a customer of ports from Washington to Mexico so when I became Executive Director 13 years ago I brought a user prospective. Although I had not worked at a port, I had extensive experience working with ports up and down the West Coast.

b. I like the diversity of business challenges the Port presents: international shipping, industrial property development, airport, marina, Pilotage and now Satsop Business Park. The Port is a public entity that must operate like a business, which means all of our decisions are based upon generating the best return for our community. Our success is based upon business transactions, not taxes. It is very rewarding to see the hundreds of people reporting to work each day at businesses located on Port property. It reminds me of our purpose to stimulate international trade, economic development and tourism for the County.

How’s the integration of Satsop Business Park into the Port properties going?

Our organizations worked cooperatively in the past and shared a common mission to generate economic development. I believe the transition has been relatively smooth. Whenever two organizations merge there is always uncertainty and anxiety. SBP was very well run and managed so making changes to philosophy and business focus is challenging but a necessary step to move forward. The potential for development at the park is very high.

Why is that a good fit for what the Port does?

The Port and Satsop Business Park shared similar objectives and commitment to improve business climate on Grays Harbor while encouraging private investment that creates and retains jobs. The combined staffs are benefiting from the expertise of the other organization and Alissa Thurman, our new Manager of Business Development at the Park, is enthusiastically leading the charge for new business at the park.

The Grays Harbor Public Development Authority recently made their official petition to disband. What does that mean for the Port and the process of transferring Satsop?

It is just part of the process to make the transition from two organizations to one. The trick is to make sure it is a seamless transition for customers and employees.

Whatever happened to the companies interested in shipping coal through the Port?

There are currently no proposals to ship coal through the Port but we have had several companies interested in developing a coal export terminal over the past few years. As with all opportunities, each was evaluated and vetted. We did have an access agreement with one developer (Rail America) for about 18 months but I think the size and scope of the project became more than they were prepared to take on and at the same time they were looking to sell their short line railroads to Genesee & Wyoming railroad so they became focused in another direction.

The Port has recently become the focus of three crude oil shipping proposals. What drew them here and all at once?

The common denominator is rail served marine terminals with excess capacity. Two of the proposals are by existing tenants, Westway and Imperium, so they have been taking advantage of our strategic location for a number of years. Both tenants have room to grow their liquid bulk handling business so it is a natural fit. We are only one and a half vessel hours from open ocean and have the only four-lane highway to the coast north of San Francisco. The fact that we are served by both Class I railroads via PSAP (Puget Sound and Pacific Railroad) is also highly attractive. The Port, in partnership with the state, rebuilt and enhanced Terminal 1 to a state-of-the-art liquid bulk handling marine terminal that is currently underutilized.

US Development Group, parent company of Grays Harbor Rail Terminal, is interested in developing the Port’s Terminal 3 (former Rayonier log yard) into a state-of-the-art rail-served liquid bulk storage facility with access to T-3. So, again, the attraction is underutilized infrastructure (rail, land and marine terminals) located at a geographically preferred site for trade in North America.

Have you encountered any common misconceptions people have about the proposals or how the Port is handling them?

The most common misconceptions are that the Port owns the railroad and that we are a regulatory agency. We are served by a short line railroad that connects with both Class 1 railroads (BNSF and UP) which gives us a competitive advantage but we do not own, nor do we have control over, the railroad outside of the marine terminal. The Port’s mission is to use our resources to create economic development in the county that creates jobs. Our model has been to use existing infrastructure (rail and marine terminals) to entice private investment on Port property. It has been quite successful as demonstrated by the increases in cargo, vessel calls and jobs. Our job is to bring opportunities to the table. There are other agencies that are charged with vetting these opportunities from a regulatory standpoint. We believe that if project proponents are willing to comply with all environmental regulations and meet all conditions and contingencies for their proposed facilities that they are a worthy addition to our community.

How are you handling public feedback on the proposals?

We do our best to respond to all inquiries. The Port has a website specific to the crude by rail (CBR) projects. We keep it up to date and the proponents each have allowed us to post and share their specific project information and answers to Frequently Asked Questions. There is also an opportunity on the website to leave comments or ask questions about the projects. We respond to these comments and questions in a timely manner. We will be featuring an update on the CBR projects and inviting our regulatory and service partners to share information at our commission meetings, which are the second Tuesday of every month. Our goal is to make sure the community has information and facts available about the projects. We strongly believe that all three of the current project proponents are good, solid companies, dedicated to safety and committed to the communities they are located in.

What do you think about potentially having three oil shipping operations?

I believe we would be incredibly fortunate to have all three projects operating on Grays Harbor. The level of private investment and number of jobs would be a welcome addition for a county that is habitually one of the highest unemployed areas in the state. I believe the increased rail traffic can be managed to minimize the impact to our community with additional rail infrastructure. The increased level of shipping would still not get us back to the level of marine activity in the ’70s and ’80s, so from a maritime industry standpoint we could get back to the levels not seen on Grays Harbor for over 20 years.

What’s the Port’s role in potential rail infrastructure improvements? How does the quality of the rail system impact the Port’s competitiveness?

The quality of the rail system impacts the Port’s competitiveness so it is in all our best interest to encourage continued maintenance and improvements. The Port’s focus is on maintaining and improving the Port owned rail infrastructure. The rail infrastructure owned by the G&W is subject to regular inspections by both internal inspectors and the FRA inspectors. They invest annually in the repair and maintenance of their property. They also have a plan for capital improvements that will safely allow for increased capacity and service on their railroad. Our niche in the maritime industry is rail dependent marine cargo (primarily export) from the mid-West or inter-Mountain regions of the USA. So the Port and G&W share a common interest in preserving and protecting the quality of the rail system, a very healthy relationship.

What other projects or events are going on at the Port?

The Port of Grays Harbor has celebrated many milestones in the past few years; millions of tons dry bulk products shipped, over 100,000 U.S.-made autos exported through our port and commercial seafood landing volumes and values that are second to none in the Pacific Northwest. In the area of industrial job creation we are working with TriVentas at Satsop Business Park to re-start the NewWood plant, working on enhancing waste water handling for seafood processors located at the Westport Marina and Terminal 4 enhancements to accommodate continued growth in the auto and ro/ro (roll-on/roll-off) business. The key to our current success, and our community’s future, is fostering this diversity amongst our economy and strengthening the companies that have chosen to invest here and employ our neighbors.