The choice for Port of Walla Walla District 3 commissioner comes down to a longtime farmer who owns an irrigation supply business and a longtime business school professor with family roots in farming.
Touchet resident Ron Dunning and Clarence Anderson of College Place each bring their own history in business and agriculture in the race to succeed Commissioner Fred Bennett.
That’s not all they have in common. Both are new to politics but have interacted with the Port in various capacities. Both were spurred to run by their interest in the area’s economic vitality. Both say the Port must offer more to existing businesses while still recruiting new ones. Both say they have neither a bone to pick with the Port, nor with one another.
With the two candidates largely in agreement over the state of the economy and the challenges facing the Port of Walla Walla, voters are largely left with the candidates’ backgrounds and approaches to help differentiate the two.
The winner will represent the western region of Walla Walla County, including College Place, Touchet, Lowden, Burbank, Eureka and Clyde — a district that has been the focal point of transportation and business development in recent years.
The District 3 seat has been held by Bennett for the last two consecutive terms, as well as another two terms that began in 1980. Earlier this year Bennett announced plans to retire when his six-year term expires at the end of this year.
The position on the commission pays $750 per month, plus up to $104 per day for attending meetings or performing other services as a Port representative. The latter is capped annually at $9,984. The total commissioners can make is $18,994 per year.
Fresh from a round table conference of Washington’s small credit unions, Anderson, 53, president of College Place’s Blue Mountain Credit Union, returned to his office last week to word of Sterling Savings’ cease-and-desist order.
The ongoing drama in Washington’s financial industry on top of the recession and continued threats to employment at the Washington State Penitentiary make job creation both a dire need and an incredible challenge for an economic development agency like the Port of Walla Walla.
Anderson, an inactive certified public accountant who started in business at his family’s farm and oilfield service before eventually teaching business to university students, believes he brings a variety of skills that can help the Port.
His background in accounting, for instance, might have helped catch the miscalculation made when the Port undersold its Avery Street land by $370,000 to Key Technology Inc. late last year.
He believes his knowledge of business — through workings with nonprofit organizations as well as private companies — would benefit the economic development agency, a governing body the native Canadian had never heard of until moving to the United States 16 years ago.
A 1978 graduate of then-Walla Walla College, Anderson became a permanent resident of the U.S. three years after accepting a teaching position at the school. He worked in the Walla Walla University School of Business as a professor for 16 years — eight of which were as dean of the school. The classroom was where he first became acquainted with the work of the Port.
He invited Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz and Port Economic Development Director Paul Gerola to speak to the students in his business classes over the years. Along the way he developed his own sense of the public agency and the significance of its role as a catalyst for economic development and quality-of-life.
"You can be strong culturally and socially and every other way if you’re strong economically," Anderson said.
In an interview last week he lauded the Port’s leadership as the community tries to save more than 300 penitentiary jobs threatened by Department of Corrections cuts. He believes there may be ways the Port can also step in for small businesses facing their own failures.
Education and greater utilization of the Small-Business Development Center are suggestions, he said. He also believes an "incubator" model like the one used for startup wineries at the Walla Walla Regional Airport Industrial Park could help foster other types of startup businesses.
"To a fairly great extent we have to ride out the economic cycle," Anderson said. "I think it’s really important to work at retention now and try to minimize the losses as much as possible."
He believes it also may be time for the Port to consider what role it can play in retail and tourism. Those two sectors have largely been left to other agencies while the Port focuses on industrial tenants that pay a "family wage" of $12.50 or more per hour plus benefits.
He said he doesn’t believe the Port should adjust its mission to include recruitment of lesser-paying jobs. However, he believes the agency could have a supporting role, working with other municipalities and agencies in their efforts to attract business.
"I think the Port needs to work in a cooperative spirit, but I also think it need to stay focused on economic development," Anderson said. "I think it is important that the Port set its parameters and not try to be everything to everybody."
Anderson said one area where the Port has done particularly well is property acquisition. Property owned by the Port from Burbank to Wallula and even on Dell Avenue positions it to compete for new industry.
At the same time, he said the Port needs to move carefully in its business development efforts. As a governing body, the Port should not compete with free enterprise, he emphasized.
"It’s important to be aware of the effect on those who are playing in the fair market," he said. "If someone in the free market is willing to pay fair price, you shouldn’t go for it."
He said property acquisitions should come after no other buyers have emerged to pay fair market value.
He used the former Crown Cork & Seal building, now the centerpiece of the Port’s proposed Warehouse District, as an example of the Port’s strength.
Ronald "Ron" Dunning
From the window of his office at Lowden-based irrigation design and supply operation Dunning Irrigation Supply, owner Ron Dunning has a front-yard view of U.S. Highway 12.
Shooting a glance and a nod north of the roadway, Dunning points to where the realigned highway will be when construction on the four-lane highway connecting Burbank to Walla Walla is complete.
Traffic outside the store won’t be quite as hectic for his business once the highway is moved. A safer roadway is of particular interest to Dunning, whose son, Ron Dunning Jr., died in a collision on the highway, five miles west of Walla Walla, in 1986.
But Dunning also believes the improved roadway could lead to the export of local dollars as area residents are enticed to the Tri-Cities for shopping and potentially jobs.
In his first run for office, Dunning, 62, said he’d like to see efforts to attract a wider variety of businesses to fill what he believes is a plentiful amount of empty real estate in the community.
"You’ve got a close competitor right across the river," he said. "We need a combination of jobs to keep people here."
Though he supports the Port’s mission of recruiting family-wage jobs to the area, he believes the Port must keep an open mind to all potential employers.
"Minimum wage is not enough for a family to live on, but it’s better than no job," he said. "There needs to be a balance to the amount of high-paying jobs. We can’t all make $100,000 a year."
Dunning believes his aggressive approach to business will fit well with the Port’s approach to economic development.
"I’ve been a person who’s always worked very hard for what I have," he said. "I’m a person who will take chances. But it has to be an educated chance."
At the same time, he agrees the Port has to be sensitive in its approach to business development, particularly when it comes to the perception that government is competing with local business.
"You’ve got to walk softly," he said. "You’ve got to be very concerned with other people’s incomes."
The Port must be equally concerned about taking property off the tax rolls in its acquisition of land, he said.
A lifelong area resident who farmed in Touchet before opening his irrigation operation in 1997, Dunning became acquainted with some Port staff over the years, calling to let them know he had property on the market or with questions about land values.
His farming background has had him entrenched in water issues, a topic that may benefit the Port as it works with other agencies in sustainability efforts.
Dunning praised the Port’s work in recruiting Railex and lauded its cleanup of the Walla Walla Regional Airport property. He said a focus on retention of businesses will be vital with the struggles of the current economy.
"I’d like to see the Port do a little more for the businesses that are already here," he said.
As leads come in for potential new businesses, he said he’d like to be the commissioner who digs deeper on the viability of projects, a concept he’s developed in his own business.
"I’ve got a database of 3,000 customers," Dunning said. "You’re always excited about that sale when you get it, but you better make sure the check is good." The same is true of potential companies looking to negotiate with the public agency here.
Intrigued by details, Dunning said he loves numbers and is eager to use his interest in business and farming to represent the Port.
"I think I’d be a commissioner that’s open to the public," Dunning said. "I’m not going up to the Port because I’m mad at anything. I feel I have an opportunity to give back to the community."
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.
RACE: Port of Walla Walla, District 3
OCCUPATION: President of Blue Mountain Credit Union
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Board member for the Walla Walla Housing Authority, previous board member for the Blue Mountain Action Council, active in church and Rotary.
EDUCATION: Graduated from then-Walla Walla College in 1978, earned a doctorate in business administration in 1996 from the University of Alberta in Canada.
FAMILY: Wife, Judy, and two grown children.
RACE: Port of Walla Walla, District 3
OCCUPATION: Owner of Lowden-based Dunning Irrigation Supply and a related irrigation store in Nyssa, Ore.; co-owner of Touchet Seed & Energy, an oil-seed crusher for biofuels; and farm owner.
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Member of the Touchet Gardena Lions Club; founder of the Touchet Educational Foundation; supporter of Future Business Leaders of America and Future Farmers of America through Touchet schools.
EDUCATION: Two years at Columbia Basin College.
FAMILY: Wife, Dana, four grown children and seven grandchildren.