Crossroads for Port of Seattle: Is anybody paying attention?


Every candidate for Port of Seattle Commission will tell you the Port’s biggest problem is that no one realizes how important it is.

They deliver the same lines and statistics: The publicly owned Port supports 200,000 jobs statewide. Seattle’s urban middle class depends on a working port. Four in 10 jobs in the state are trade-dependent.

The Port of Seattle includes the state’s busiest seaport, plus Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Fishermen’s Terminal, the headquarters of the Alaska fishing fleet. Its impact is further-reaching still. It is at the heart of some of the biggest questions Seattle faces: how to sustain blue-collar industry as the city business climate diversifies and how to maintain a working waterfront with Seattle’s environmental values.

Despite its important role in the state’s economy, the Port lately has struggled. A soft market and expansion before the recession struck left the seaport half-empty. Seattle and King County leaders continue to basically blow off the Port’s opposition to a proposed arena in Sodo. And it has so far failed in its attempts to help its competitive position by befriending the Port of Tacoma.

The Port has a five-member elected commission with the authority to raise property taxes countywide. Four seats are on the ballot this November, but despite attempts — including raising commissioner salaries by $36,000 a year — to make the job more attractive, only one of the races appears in doubt.

Longtime Auburn Mayor Pete Lewis is running a competitive race against two-term incumbent John Creighton. Creighton, a lawyer, is backed by labor, the Sierra Club and King County Democrats; Lewis is endorsed by former Attorney General Rob McKenna and 30 mayors and former mayors, including former Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels.

Commissioner Stephanie Bowman, who was appointed last spring to replace commissioner Rob Holland when he resigned, is being challenged by Michael Wolfe, a former travel agent.

Bowman took 67 percent of the primary vote in August, and Wolfe got only 18 percent.

The other races are even less competitive. Commissioner Courtney Gregoire, a Microsoft attorney and the daughter of the former governor, was appointed in February and faces John Naubert to keep that seat. Naubert is a Socialist Party candidate who ran in 2011 but could not recall the name of his opponent.

Commission President Tom Albro faces Richard Pope, an Eastside attorney who has run, and lost, a dozen times for various offices.

That means the commission in place now likely will not change significantly, despite the four seats on the ballot.

The next Port Commission will face some major decisions. It will hire a new CEO after Tay Yoshitani’s contract expires in June and must figure out how to fill unused capacity at the seaport.

Still, if the past is any guide, many of this year’s King County voters will skip the four races for Port Commission, sending their ballots in without making a choice.

“A countywide race can be brutal, especially when nobody is paying attention,” said former Commissioner Gael Tarleton, who resigned in January to join the state Legislature. “And boy, is nobody paying attention.”

Tensions with Tacoma

At a recent forum in West Seattle, candidates spoke about working more effectively as part of the region, especially with the Port of Tacoma.

The Seattle and Tacoma seaports — which move comparable amounts of cargo each year — have always been fiercely competitive, and now Seattle supports working together to attract business, a strategy Port of Seattle leaders say is key to their future. For example, they could strategically invest in different upgrades, and they could compete together on price instead of undercutting each other.

“We can bring the Port of Tacoma to the table,” Lewis said. “We have to get beyond the egos and start setting up to have a conversation.”

Lewis is challenging Creighton on a platform that he has more experience bringing together regional leaders. During his 10 years as Auburn mayor, Lewis founded a group called Valley Cities to give South King County and North Pierce County industrial cities a united voice with the ports.

Lewis says a more transparent commission could rebuild trust in the Port and eventually work out some kind of interlocal agreement with the Port of Tacoma.

“In Pierce County, there’s an absolute belief that in any deal with Seattle, Pierce County’s going to lose,” he said. That fundamental distrust has to be overcome, and fast, he said, because businesses view the current situation as fraught with infighting.

In his two terms, Creighton has been a leader in reaching out to Tacoma’s port. Creighton was president of the Port of Seattle Commission when it held its first joint meeting with the commissioners at the Port of Tacoma in 2008. That was an awkward meeting, Creighton said, but each time the two groups get together, it has been easier to talk through real issues.

The ports of Tacoma and Seattle already are cooperating in lobbying and planning on federal security issues and environmental standards, and together they lobbied the state on transportation funding, he said.

“Commission cooperation is the last remaining piece,” he said. “It makes sense for us to cooperate. On the other hand, like school districts, people like local control.”

On the campaign trail, candidates say more cooperation with Tacoma’s port seems to be popular.

Commissioner Bowman,is touting her work for the Port of Tacoma. The main advantage from that experience? “A very great appreciation for the economic impact of the seaport and the maritime industry in particular,” she says.

But Tacoma leaders are not pushing to work more collaboratively with Seattle, in part because of problems at the Port of Seattle in recent years.

Pacific Merchant Shipping Association President John McLaurin spoke to the Port’s reputation at a shipping-industry conference in California last spring.

He called Tacoma’s port “the little engine that could,” but said Seattle’s port is an embarrassment of antics — with commissioners resigning and running for other offices and inconsistent support from city and county officials.

In the past several years, the Port has dealt with alleged contracting fraud and commissioners misusing their credit cards. Two commissioners resigned this year: one after revelations about personal and professional problems, and one to join the Legislature.

Port of Tacoma CEO John Wolfe said the two ports have “cultural differences.”

“I see inherent conflict,” he said recently.

Port of Tacoma Commission President Don Meyer said: “The history is such that, when you talk about a Seattle-centric decision-making body advising what we should do, we really get offended by that.”

The arena fight

The Port of Tacoma is Pierce County’s main economic engine. In King County, the economy is much more diverse. That’s good for the economy, but it means a lot of things compete with the maritime industry for support.

Consider the current proposal for a basketball arena in Sodo.

The Port fought the Sodo site loudly, pointing to its 25-year strategic plan, the Century Agenda, and its promise of 100,000 new jobs. City and county governments essentially ignored its concerns and went ahead with the arena plans.

“The Port doesn’t scare anybody,” said Jordan Royer, vice president for external affairs at the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association and former adviser to Mayor Nickels.

Worrisome outlook

Competition is a huge concern, especially for Seattle’s seaport, where only about half of the terminal capacity is in use. About 70 percent of the freight that comes to the Port of Seattle is headed for the Midwest, so shippers have lots of options for ways to get it there, including competition not only in Tacoma, but also in Vancouver, B.C., and California.

A wider Panama Canal is expected to debut in 2015, opening new trade routes to the East Coast. Canada is making major investments in its West Coast ports. Last year, Tacoma’s port signed a contract with The Grand Alliance, which had been one of the Port of Seattle’s major shipping customers. Seattle countered with a deal to keep Hanjin, another major shipping company, but at much lower rent than the Port anticipated.

This summer, Moody’s Investors Service warned that it might downgrade the Port’s bond ratings because of a poor financial outlook.

Between the Grand Alliance and Hanjin deals, with the Puget Sound ports working to underbid each other, the region lost about $125?million, said Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant.

“They don’t have unlimited funds. Neither of us have unlimited funds,” said Bryant, the only commissioner whose name is not on the ballot this year. “We can’t keep doing this.”

Gregoire watched the arena debate before she joined the commission. The Port voiced its concerns later in public — too late to have much impact, she said.

“Talk about talking past each other,” she said.

So she started her time in office by meeting with other elected officials. Many had positive things to say about working with the Port on parks projects. They were less eager to discuss thornier issues.

“Those relationships have to be there, so the early conversations are not letters across the bow,” she said.

Bowman, the other new commissioner, said the commission presented its Century Agenda to dozens of cities and other groups, but they walked away without a plan to actually include other leaders and their concerns.

Bowman said the commission in place now — with two appointed members — is the first functional commission in eight or nine years. That’s the first step to gaining a little credibility, she said.

“I think we finally have a commission that is on the same page, and that’s a really good thing,” she said.

Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter