WALLA WALLA -- The Port of Walla Walla's leadership role in economic development was at the center of a rapid-fire debate Tuesday night between candidates for the Port Commission's District 2 seat.
Incumbent Mike Fredrickson said the Port has been at the helm of business recruitment and retention movements that, among other things, have helped save jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary, expand U.S. Highway 12 to four lanes and build the economic development agency's stable of property for potential industrial growth.
But the agency's internal approach to conducting business was among the chief concerns from challenger Barlow Corkrum in an intense 30-plus-minute debate at Whitman College's Maxey Hall.
Corkrum said the agency is being steered by its executive director rather than elected leaders. He said the public is not more engaged in the decision-making process because the Port's 5 1/2-hour meetings are too long for most people to attend and its written minutes -- the only public record of the meetings -- are incomplete for following up. He also questioned the integrity of the relationships between Port commissioners and Executive Director Jim Kuntz.
The Port candidate debate followed an exchange among seven of the eight candidates for Walla Walla City Council (read about that debate on Page A8). The Walla Walla Valley Chamber of Commerce organized Tuesday's event as a way for voters to get to know more about the candidates. The general election will take place in three weeks.
The winner of the Port race will serve a six-year term, representing the eastern third of the city of Walla Walla, Dixie, Waitsburg and Prescott areas.
Between 65 and 70 people turned out for the forum. Bob Withycombe, retired Whitman forensics and debate professor, served as moderator for the free event intended to help voters choose the best candidate for public office.
Tuesday's format was a departure from previous candidate debates. Candidates each got two minutes for opening statements. After that Withycombe read 10 statements to which candidates held up signs indicating they "agree," "disagree," or are "neutral" on the statement. From there Withycombe asked a series of questions in an open-ended format that allowed any candidate who wanted to respond. That portion was followed with questions the candidates crafted for their opponents. Each candidate got to create two questions for his or her opponent. The debates ended with two-minute closing statements from each candidate.
Fredrickson and Corkrum were on common ground on several fundamental issues for the agency, including that growth is key in economic development, that small businesses must be able to get assistance and that the Walla Walla Regional Airport and commercial air service should be among the Port's top focuses.
But their approaches to virtually everything else differed. Corkrum believes the Port should divest its vast industrial land holdings so that they will be returned to the tax rolls. Fredrickson believes the Port's ownership is key to economic development. The Port's Wallula land was twice a finalist in recent years for major projects, including a Procter & Gamble plant and Renewable Energy Corp.'s proposed polysilicon manufacturing operation.
"No, we didn't get them," Fredrickson said. "But you have to be a finalist to even get there."
Corkrum believes the Port must broaden its economic development focus from manufacturing to include retail, service jobs and tourism-related sectors. "Manufacturing is not where the new jobs are coming from," he said. But Fredrickson believes expanding into those sectors would deviate from the Port's mission of recruiting family-wage jobs and bring undue competition to businesses and other agencies already working on other types of economic development.
In a question formulated by Fredrickson for Corkrum, the incumbent noted Corkrum's criticism of "smokestack type facilities." If the Boise Inc. plant in Wallula were not in the county and the Port had a chance to bring in the same plant at the same location today, Fredrickson asked if Corkrum would support the decision to recruit.
"To be honest with you: No," Corkrum said. He said he believes the operation is one of the biggest polluters in the state.
Conversely, one of Corkrum's questions for Fredrickson asked about the incumbent's definition of "conflict of interest."
Corkrum said he believes the agency lacks transparency and is losing faith from the public. He hammered that several times with the example that Fredrickson and fellow Commissioner Paul Schneidmiller traveled to Phoenix with Kuntz a year ago as a social visit and stayed at Kuntz's condominium there. He called the trip a "conflict of interest" for commissioners who set the salary for the executive director.
"Yes, I went on that trip and, yes, I stayed. I slept on a couch," Fredrickson said. He said no Port business was conducted during the weekend trip and nothing improper took place. He said the trip has not affected Kuntz's employment one way or another.
Long-term goals for the Port: Fredrickson said he would like to see an incubator business concept in Waitsburg; completion of the Port's warehouse district off Dell Avenue; installation of a new sewer line in Burbank; and a major manufacturer at the Port's Wallula property.
"All accounts show we're on the right track," Fredrickson said.
Corkrum said the Port's advocacy approach for business retention has been its greatest service to the community and that he'd like to continue that. He believes the Port should establish standing committees that can advise the commissioners on the types of development that should be taking place -- similar to municipal planning commissions. He wants the Port to refocus its mission to include a variety of sectors.
"I think we need elected officials that understand the importance of who they work for," he said.
Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8321.