Q&A: Seattle Port Commission President Tom Albro
The Port of Seattle, founded in 1911, is among the nation's largest port authorities with more than $900 million in annual budget. In the coming weeks, the Port will fill an open commissioner role created by the election of current commissioner Gael Tarleton, who was elected in November to the Washington state legislature.
The Port is advertising on Crosscut and in other media outlets in order to solicit applications from which commissioners will appoint a new commissioner to replace Tarleton. The Port held an informational candidate forum on January 22nd, and video from that can be seen here.
The Port recently published its Century Agenda, designed to create 100,000 new jobs over the next 25 years. Crosscut's Partner Voices Page sat down with port commission president Tom Albro in his office to ask more about the commimssioner they hope to attract.
Why is it important for the Port of Seattle to cast the net wide to find a new port commissioner?
We care to make a great appointment because this is one of the tremendous economic engines for our region and state. The port’s success matters a great deal to our economic success. We have more umph to deal with social issues when we are stronger economically. We want to be able to grow 100,000 port-related jobs in the manufacturing, culturual, tourism (you name it) sectors. It’s vital, and it’s not easy. The big challenge for us is we have a very balkanized government aproach. There is no one or three agencies, including the port, that has the jurisdictional reach that can drive economic success – no one agency is responsible for taxation, environmental regulation, business policy. In order to move the needle we need to have very effective political advocacy to other jurisdictions and help tell the story of why policies need to change whatever they are. And that’s a big lift. We need a strong commission
What is the profile of the commissioner you hope to attract?
This is my view. You could ask other commissioners and they would have their own thoughts. We would all agree you have to know the city, the county and the region. If you just showed up yesterday it wouldn’t really help. You wouldn’t know the ‘why.’ You need the background. You need to have a pattern of engagement, integrity, smarts sufficient come up to speed quickly though there is a learning curve we all experienced. We want a complement to the rest of us in terms of viewpoint, background, geography. We value having 5 people serve as commissioners and we want it to be diverse. This is a significant political job and so you have to be willing to spend the time. That is easier said than done because it is not a position that is highly remunerated and so that narrows the potential field.
What are some of the duties the new commissioner will have?
External advocacy for polices that promote job growth. We must do the things that create jobs. That is why we exist. We must have the ability to provide the public oversight of a very large institution. There is a reason why we have a publicly elected commission. This is an executive not a legislative commission that just passes budgets and pocieis. We run the place and that is a tall responsibility. Being responsive to the community and not allowing yourself to become entrenched in any one set of views or beholden to any one interest. It goes back to the attributes but they tie together. We are elected at-large, countywide, so we can think more regionally. It’s a sacred trust. You've got to be up to it. It’s a significant undertaking when you recognize we serve 39 cities, 1.1 million voters, 2 million residents in King County. This is the big Kahoona of our state.
Describe the specific goals of a port commissioner.
We get to decide who the new commissioner will be, but once they get here they get to choose their goals. They are an independent voice so I won’t presume what their goals will be. Here is what we would be solicitous of. We need to create 100,000 new jobs and so facilities and capacity that will improve terminals and infrastructure is important. There is another side that is more political in nature. We have commission-led initiatives in communities throughout the region. We want to improve access to world markets for Washington producers. There is an opportunity to improve from 4 out of 100 Washington businesses exporting to 5, 6 and beyond. We will look at thoughtfully applying trade zone status, attract investment and workforce development so that there are skilled workers to help us bolster exports. The commissioner will focus on environmental standards and tourism. I hope that they will grab hold of one of those areas and provide political leadership to understand where there is opportunity.
When you look at the 4 current port commissioners, is there a hole in your collective skills and abilities that you hope to fill?
We are missing lots of attributes but I personally don’t see a hole I am trying to fill. I am really open to a lot of possibilities. I’ve hired a lot of people in my personal business life. I make the best hiring decisions when I don’t overly contrive what the person should be.
What’s the competitive environment the new commissioner will walk into?
On the container side we have historical competition with Tacoma. The status quo is not acceptable. We have 75 ports in our state and that is by far more than any other place. They are the creation of local economies saying they want an economic development center to help move Washington wine, food processing, data centers. What I think is happening now is there is a general recognition that we would be much more effective if we thought and behaved like a regional network. The truth is that we are so unaligned now that a little alignment would create tremendous synergies. Leadership from these ports will be meeting soon with Gov. Jay Inslee to talk about the role of the port in a more synergistic way that could move the economy forward in more significant ways.
Is there a port you would most like to emulate?
We would have to parse that into lines of business. In other words, what seaport or airport or fishing port authority? To be candid I am not sure I understand the global competitive business of all those lines of business. I wish I had the market advantage of an LA/Long Beach port. A ship will call there because 70 percent of the goods will be consumed there. If you went to Savannah, GA, they believe that what’s good for the Port of Savannah is good for Savannah. We don’t have that here. I envy their political environment. I envy the Port of Prince Rupert (North Coast of British Columbia). They have a national strategy to be the front door into the U.S. marketpace and they have some tax advantages to make that happen. The Canadian government has a national rail strategy. We don’t have that.
Any final thoughts on why someone should apply for the port commissioner role?
If you look historically, port commissioners have not held previously elective office. That I hope would give some confidence that might be considering this position.