Port of Seattle: Challenges coming by sea, by air

Can it maintain its job-creating mojo as competition for international business increases?
Sea-Tac Airport

Sea-Tac Airport Sue Frause

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport Courtesy of the Port of Seattle

Early this year, Seattle’s port commissioners were called the gang that couldn’t shoot straight after a series of gaffes and missteps. But now, fresh from election triumphs, the Port of Seattle’s five-member commission has a number of big targets to aim at.

Those targets all are connected to maintaining jobs and the middle class in the region. A new CEO, declining business at the seaport and increasing competition are among the issues now facing the five-member commission.

Four “races” for commission seats (two incumbents and two appointed earlier this year) turned out to be barely contested, except perhaps for the one between incumbent John Creighton and Pete Lewis, the mayor of Auburn whose endorsements included that of The Seattle Times. But even Creighton steamrolled Lewis with 69 percent of the vote. The other three up for election — Tom Albro, Courtney Gregoire and Stephanie Bowman — all won by wide majorities.

The commission now consists of Albro, the commission president who is an engineer and businessman; Gregoire, an attorney with Microsoft and former Director of the National Export Initiative; Bowman, executive director of the nonprofit Washington ABC; Creighton, an attorney and longest serving member of the commission, elected in 2006, and Bill Bryant, a trade consultant who was not up for election this year.

One of the reasons the port races garnered so little attention is that few really understand what the port does. Strip away all the port activities and at its heart the job of the port is economic development, commission president Albro said. Ports up and down Puget Sound represent one of the last places in the economy where workers can find good paying jobs without college degrees.

Commission candidates, who like to complain about the lack of attention, usually cited one study that estimated the port was responsible for about 200,000 jobs statewide. That’s significant, making the port as important an employer as Boeing, Microsoft, the University of Washington or other major employers. The figure, which includes calculations of direct and indirect job creation, comes from a 2007 study done by Martin Associates, Lancaster, Pa.

The general public usually thinks of the port in terms of container ships and cranes that dot the skyline like groups of huge insects. And the downtown aspects of the port have driven many of the issues – the proposed basketball arena, the Highway 99 tunnel and seawall. But the port’s real center is the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Sea-Tac is operated by the port and represents the largest part of port operations by a factor of three. In 2012, port financial reports show the airport accounted for $386 million of port income compared with $103 million for the seaport and $32 million for the port’s real-estate operations.

Wherever they are, port jobs by and large are blue collar jobs — crane operators, drivers, airport workers on the tarmac and so forth. Gregoire campaigned on more port-generated jobs. One of the keys is more work-force training. There are efforts underway in both high schools and at the community college level, but more has to be done.

But the port commission faces major challenges and decisions as it pursues job creation.

  • Selecting a new CEO: Tay Yoshitani, hired from the Port of Oakland in 2007, has announced that he plans to retire in 2014 and the commission must find a replacement for him. That process is expected to start soon and the choice will have a big role in the future of the port.

“We are unique with both a seaport and an airport,” said Gregoire. “We want a CEO who understands how to connect and work across jurisdictions.” In other words, they are looking for someone who knows how to work with constituents of both the airport and the seaport.

“They need to find someone who can bring business to the port,” said one observer, a reference to the fact that container traffic is down almost 20 percent this year.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Nov 19, 10:25 a.m. Inappropriate

Privatize the Port of Seattle. Follow a model like Rotterdam - with rules about how labor, government, and the private sector interact. Put rail to the dock and improve all rail crossings in SODO to Tukwila. We'll be competitive again, the public sector will bear less risk and opportunity loss, not to mention less accountability financially.

This is not a function that should be performed by government. It should be a productive, profit-making enterprise, or it should fail and make room for something more productive.

nullbull

Posted Tue, Nov 19, 11:53 a.m. Inappropriate

Agree; privatize and abolish the property tax subsidy for the port. Also; if Tacoma has better infrastructure, let them get the increase in shipping work. Finally, I really question the '200,000' jobs number. Any proof other than a statement by 'one study'?

animalal

Posted Tue, Nov 19, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Albro says Seattle and Tacoma Port "merger is a nonstarter on several levels" But he doesn't say why not merge the cargo operations. Frankly, why not move cargo operations to Tacoma, where more land is available, and redevelop Seattle's container port for a more economic use?

WallyW

Posted Wed, Nov 20, 5:46 a.m. Inappropriate

You just elected/re-elected a group of proven non-performers and non-reformer political insiders. Why would you expect any different results? Higher tax subsidies, less value for taxpayers.

Cameron

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