WALLA WALLA - Port of Walla Walla Commissioner Mike Fredrickson will face two familiar challengers in the race to defend his District 2 seat in the August primary election.
One, real estate investor Barlow Corkrum, was his opponent for the same seat six years ago. The other, business educator and consultant Richard Monacelli, operated a business development center in the Port's administrative offices.
Ballots were mailed out Friday for the Aug. 16 primary. The top two vote-getters will advance to the general election Nov. 8.
Founded in 1952, the Port of Walla Walla is the operator of the Walla Walla Regional Airport and the county's lead economic development agency with a mission to create and retain family-wage jobs, expand the area's tax base, maintain multi-modal transportation linkages and provide leadership in enhancing the county's overall economic vitality and quality of life. Its 2011 budget is about $12 million. About 20 to 22 percent of that comes from the Port's share of local property taxes. The rest comes from tenant leases and utility enterprises. The agency has 13 employees.
Fredrickson says the organization has succeeded in meeting the Port's goals throughout his term, which included one of the nation's worst economic crises. He points to the widening of U.S. Highway 12, the state's appropriation of $42.5 million for new facilities at the Washington State Penitentiary, and numerous projects from new roofs at Port-owned buildings to plans for a new sewer system in Burbank as examples.
But critics of the agency maintain too many decisions are made without public input. They say the executive director has too much control of the operation and question whether a salary of nearly $135,000 and a $25,000 deferred compensation package is justifiable. They believe the Port needs to refocus its attention in order to better serve the community.
If Barlow Corkrum's platform rings familiar, it's probably because it is.
Six years ago, on what was then his second attempt at Port commissioner, Corkrum spoke of a new focus at the economic development agency. One where the Port spends less time and money on land acquisition, more energy on small business needs and conducts its business in an open setting where the public is informed about meeting agendas and has an opportunity to participate from start to finish.
The same principles are guiding his current campaign, Corkrum said. If anything, he believes the changing economic landscape has made them that much more relevant.
"My objective," he said plainly, "is to change the leadership."
He said he was asked to run for a third time by people he respects in the public and private sectors.
Corkrum, a fifth generation Walla Wallan who grew up in the wheat and pea fields around Dixie and Walla Walla, says he wants to refocus how the Port serves the community.
He calls air transportation the "elephant in the room." Having just two flights is "problematic for a lot of people," he said. He believes the Port should emphasize its air travel as its primary focus.
He said the Port's massive portfolio of properties that span from the airport industrial park to the western edge in the county and total over 4,500 acres has become more of a detriment than a recruitment tool.
"They're operating on an old premise: If you build it, they will come," Corkrum said. "That hasn't been true over the last 10 years."
Though owning property with water rights, access to utilities and road, rail and barge was a perfect combination in the 2006 opening of Railex, it's been the only development of that magnitude in recent years. Acres and acres of empty land surround it, Corkrum said. Being in the Port's possession means the property is off the tax rolls.
"If it was in the private sectors, taxes would be paid," he said. It would also keep the Port from competing with the public sector for tenants, Corkrum said.
"Our Port walks a very fine line between assisting fledgling business ventures and actively competing with the private sector," he said during a candidate debate earlier this month.
Corkrum said he is also troubled by what he believes is a lack of transparency in Port operations.
Though the Port takes minutes at its regular meetings, the agency does not post minutes during the hourlong work sessions that take place before the meetings. The work sessions are not regularly attended by citizens.
He believes minutes should also be taken at the Port's Economic Advisory Committee meetings, which take place about six times a year.
With real estate negotiations taking place in executive sessions, he said there's no opportunity for the public to show support for a project or oppose it until a decision has usually already been reached behind closed doors.
"They should work not only within the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law on the Open Meetings Act," Corkrum said.
He believes the Port should also stretch its focus to include recruitment of businesses in sectors it has never before made its focus, including retail and tourism.
He said the Port's willingness several years ago to engage in discussions with developers of a potential coal-fueled power plant is not acceptable.
"I believe they need to re-evaluate or rewrite their mission statement and core values," he said.
"Historically and up until now they don't address the needs of retail or tourism. They're spokes in the wheel."
Corkrum said he doesn't believe the Port should become the primary promoters of those sectors, but should collaborate with organizations that are already the work.
"I know what needs to be done, and it's not going to be easy," he said. "It's going to take time."
"We've gone into protection mode," incumbent Mike Fredrickson said of the Port's approach to the recession.
Unlike other local government agencies, the Port has weathered the recession relatively unscathed, meaning no layoffs or major cutbacks for the organization. Fredrickson, an appraiser who grew up in a Walla Walla wheat farming family, believes it's a testament to the Port's fiscal responsibility and running a lean operation. At the same time, with so few companies expanding or moving through the economic downturn, the agency has had to change its economic development strategy.
"It's so quiet right now," he said. "The big companies are sitting."
In the meantime, jobs at one of the community's biggest employers, the Washington State Penitentiary, were threatened because of state budget woes. The Port has been at the forefront of efforts to save those jobs, Fredrickson said.
The agency retained a lobbyist on behalf of jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary. About $42.5 million for new facilities was included in the operating budget approved by the Legislature in May.
Changing course - whether to save existing jobs or figure out how to attract new ones in a tight economy - was a major topic for commissioners as they started the new year, Fredrickson said. Consequently, at their annual budget retreat the mission was to find sectors that could be targeted for growth. Solar and wind capacity identified. Last spring, the Port announced the formation of the Southeast Washington Renewable Energy District, a joint organization created to promote the development of wind, solar, biomass and other renewable energy resources.
"You have to change your strategy in a recession," Fredrickson said.
He said the Port has focused much of its attention on the retention of jobs and investments in infrastructure, including the continued widening of U.S. Highway 12 from Walla Walla to Burbank.
The direction is slightly different from when Fredrickson took office and the community was riding the excitement of the launch of coast-to-coast shipping train Railex, which opened 10 months after Fredrickson began his six-year term.
Nevertheless, Fredrickson said there's been plenty to celebrate since then. During his period in office, the Port has completed construction of the winery incubator complex on Piper Avenue and graduated its first tenant; sold the Walter E. Nelson building; sold the Key Technology building; and continued to cycle through much-needed maintenance and roofing repairs at its airport buildings. It recently signed a letter of intent with Columbia REA, which plans to purchase the Port's Melrose Avenue complex for about $5.3 million.
The Port has also begun working on converting a cluster of its smaller Dell Avenue buildings for an artists colony that will serve a need for industrial artists and diversify the Port's tenants.
Fredrickson has always been interested in alternative fuels as a direction for the Port. It was a focus of his campaign in 2005 and continues to be an area where he believes ancillary businesses can develop.
Fredrickson said the Port-owned land in Wallula and Burbank are assets for business recruitment, particularly businesses looking for industrial-zoned land with water, sewer and access to rail, road and barge. "There's just not that many places in the world with that many great acres," he said.
He's aware that some have accused the Port of not being transparent. He acknowledged the Port's meetings often run impossibly long for most people to attend in their entirety. He also said the Port has tried to rein in the number of items spoken of that weren't on the initial published agenda.
But he said officials are willing to move items around on the agenda if they know someone in the audience is attending the meeting expressly for that item.
He said the Port has made numerous other changes to try to accommodate the public, including publishing minutes and agendas online and splitting the twice monthly meetings so that one takes place in the evenings when the working public can attend.
"I think we're about as open and transparent as any (organization) in the community," he said.
Fredrickson also addressed the salary of the Port's executive director, Jim Kuntz, who is one of the community's highest paid public officials. He said Kuntz's salary matches the market rate for an executive director who's been in the position 25 years. He said he would like to see the deferred compensation package renegotiated. The current agreement provides Kuntz with $25,000 if he stays through the end of the year. If he leaves any time before then, he gets the amount prorated.
Fredrickson would like the package amended so that if the executive director were to leave before the end of the year, he would get none of the deferred compensation.
He said the Port's portion of tax revenue is dedicated largely to capital and debt payments. The agency generates enough income off leases and taxes for the general Port operations, including labor costs.
If there's one thing he'd like to change about Port operations, it's long-term planning. He said leads continue to roll in. The Port's $100,000 fireflow financing for plastic bottle manufacturer Amcor is an example.
"We seem to do really well at one- to two-year planning," he said. "My biggest push now that I've been in this seat five and a half years is what's out five, 10 or 20 years?"
Richard Monacelli had an intriguing view of Port operations for years. Specifically from a rear office in the agency's administrative headquarters.
For roughly 17 years Monacelli was director of the Walla Walla Area Small Business Center, which operated at the Port office until its closure last year. He was a fixture in the office, but not an employee. Integral to business development but not beholden to the agency.
Monacelli, a Western Washington transplant who came to the area in 1993 and has worked on behalf of small businesses since 1984, said he supports the Port's stated mission but is bothered by how some decisions are made.
The closure of the small business center is an example. Funded by three sources - Washington State University, Walla Walla Community College and the Port - the organization was in trouble when the state budge woes set in. The two schools pulled funding, leaving the Port as the only financial resource.
Monacelli hoped the Port would supplement the funding loss until new resources could be found. He said the program tended to run about $72,000 a year - about half the executive director's annual earnings, he pointed out - but was told the Port could not fund the program. The center closed in May 2010.
The closure, Monacelli emphasized, was upsetting but is not the reason he's challenging Fredrickson. With 27 years of economic development experience and three degrees he believes he is the right person for the job.
In the 17 years as director of the local small business center, he said he saw more than 2,000 individual registered clients. His job was to provide assistance to existing and potential small-business owners and develop and direct business education outreach programs.
He served on numerous Small Business Development Center boards and worked with lawmakers to help with economic development initiatives, including the incubator concept.
Monacelli's approach to economic development includes balancing the most effective strategies with valuation to determine where the focus should be. He has questioned the Port's potential sale of the Melrose Avenue facility, saying the cash made does not represent a return on investment.
"Where we do get it is through creating long-term infrastructure," he said.
He said the Port's state intention to use the money on a new sewer system in Burbank meets a need in that community. "But if you want to be hard-nosed, does it create jobs?"
He said the Port must be more selective with its land acquisitions and said the Port's supply-side thinking in its collection of properties is not delivering. If the agency has property that isn't developed over the long-term, maybe the Port should reconsider hanging onto it.
"It's just like a retailer," he said. "If something's been sitting on your shelf for a year, get rid of it."
Monacelli acknowledged the economic impact of the recession, but said a deeper approach to reviewing the agency's strategy is needed.
He doesn't believe venturing into retail or tourism are answers.
Monacelli said he, too, is bothered by what he believes is the agency's lack of transparency. He said the published minutes are deeply condensed versions of the discussions that take place at meetings. He's also been bothered by differences from the published agenda versus the published minutes.
"I firmly believe - not just the Port, but others, too - (schedule) those meetings at best for when they're available, and at worst to make it difficult for the public to participate."
He said he's been deeply troubled by some of the decision-making processes, and pointed to the purchase of the land known as the Olson farm as an example. The property abutted the airport's clear zone area, and consequently was purchased when it became available with a vast majority of Federal Aviation Administration funds.
But the deal became controversial when citizens alerted the FAA that the vast majority of the property did not qualify for grant funding. Instead, they alleged, the Port wanted a water right that existed on the property to serve as backup for a major residential development in the works in 2006 east of the city.
The FAA initially said the Port misrepresented itself and concealed information that allowed it to obtain the grant. The FAA later said it should not have used those terms to describe the situation, but the situation nevertheless was seen by some in the community as dishonest.
The example is one Monacelli uses of how he would not operate. He believes the commission has become a rubber-stamp panel that follows the direction of a strong-willed executive director without doing enough homework.
"You can depend on me to be informed and operate with integrity," he said. "If I believe in something, I'll go to the mat for it."
ROLE OF PORT COMMISSION
The Port of Walla Walla commissioners set policy, direction and approve all expenditures of the Port. Each commissioner serves a six-year term. Terms are staggered so that one position is up for election every two years. While all commissioners are elected on a countywide basis, each must live in a specific commissioner district within Walla Walla County. Commissioners decide each year who will hold the offices of president, vice president and secretary. Commissioners are also responsible for appointing the executive director and Port attorney. Commissioners receive $104 per day compensation for each day spent attending meetings or performing other services on behalf of the Port. State law limits such compensation to no more than $9,984 per year. In addition, Port commissioners receive a salary of up to $750 per month. Port Commission meetings are open to the public and are normally held on the second and fourth Thursday of each month. Meetings start at 1 p.m. on the second Thursday and 6 p.m. on the fourth Thursday at Port District offices, 310 A Street.
Information from the Port of Walla Walla website.