Why you should care about electing port commissioners

PUGET SOUND, Wash. -- In the next week, voters have the chance to voice how to run one of the region's largest job creators in electing commissioners to the ports of Tacoma and Seattle.

Each port has two open positions on a 5-person commission. Some may believe that the mission of the ports doesn't have a huge impact for those not involved in trade. It couldn't be further from the truth.

Back in 2015, the ports of Tacoma and Seattle merged marine cargo operations, creating the Northwest Seaport Alliance. In 2017, the merged entity said it supported more than 58,000 jobs, $12.4 billion in business revenue, produced more than $4 billion in labor income and generated $136 million in state taxes. NWSA said the average annual wage, including benefits, is $95,000.

According to the Port of Seattle, both ports contribute more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs to the region.

In Tacoma, Clare Petrich is retiring from the port commission after 24 years.

"The Port of Tacoma has always considered itself an economic engine for Pierce County and that has not changed," Petrich said.

What has changed is the sheer size of that engine, in both Pierce and King counties. Commissioners are responsible for setting policy and strategic direction for the ports. Petrich and former Port of Seattle Commissioner Bill Bryant worked together to merge the two years ago.

"Because we've combined our resources, we're able to make long-term investments that will allow us to compete with Vancouver and not just steal business back and forth away from each other," Bryant said.

Together, the alliance is investing in projects like the $500-million Terminal 5 modernization near West Seattle, which will better fit the next generation of ships.

"They're going to be the sizes of a few football fields so that old terminal over there is no longer going to be able to accommodate those new ships," said Bryant, who was first elected to the Port of Seattle commission in 2007 and served two terms.

Both Bryant and Petrich told Q13 News one of the most important characteristics of a commissioner is the ability to plan for the future.

"How far in advance should we be looking? Absolutely you have to be looking out about 50 years or so," Petrich said.

It was that type of forward thinking from a past Port of Seattle commission that opened the Puget Sound to cruise ships two decades ago.

"It was a build it and they will come, and they did," Bryant said.

20 years ago, six ships came in. This year, more than 200 docked. According to the Port of Seattle, each ship brings more than $4 million to the state's economy, from buying food and wine for the ships to hotels, travel and tourism.

"You might not realize it, but if you're at all related to tourism or hospitality, you care about the cruise business," Bryant said. "If you're at all related to technology, you care about Sea-Tac airport."

That brings us to the region's other access point to the world. As far as passenger traffic goes, Sea-Tac International is one of the country's fastest-growing airport hubs in one of the fastest-growing regions.

But construction needs to catch up with demand. One of the Port of Seattle's projects is building a brand-new international terminal.

"But it's way late and it's hundreds of millions of dollars over budget," Bryant criticized.

It drives home the responsibility that falls on every port commissioner to handle growth in the region and handle with care.

In Tacoma, Frank Boykin and Deanna Keller are running for Position 3, while Kristin Ang and Dave Bryant are running for Position 5. This month, The News Tribune wrote about how cash is flooding the Tacoma Port of Commission races and who supports each candidate.

In Seattle, former Bellevue mayor Grant Degginger is running against export business owner Sam Cho for Position 2, while incumbent Fred Felleman is facing off against Garth Jacobson for Position 5. The Seattle Times also looked into backers for the candidates and key issues, including conservation.