When the two rival Port of Tacoma Commission candidates talk, you might think they are not talking about the same port.
Challenger Eric Holdeman talks about the port’s $600-million debt, its failed Maytown project, its deferred maintenance, its lack of investment in new technology and its failure to close on a $150-million crude oil terminal deal.
Incumbent Connie Bacon lauds the port’s 25 percent container traffic gain, its 100 percent breakbulk cargo increase, its business diversification and careful use of taxpayer dollars.
Both speak with some authority but see the facts from different perspectives. Bacon has served on the commission for 16 years. Holdeman until last spring was the port’s security chief.
“Contrary to what you may hear from my opponent today,” Bacon recently told a World Trade Center Tacoma election forum audience, “the port is in very good shape.”
She made note of the Grand Alliance, a consortium of five container shipping lines that the Port of Tacoma attracted from the Port of Seattle last year. That group of shipping companies, whose Puget Sound port of call is now the port’s Washington United Terminal, is largely responsible for the port’s post-recession rebound in container traffic. Largely because of the Grand Alliance, Tacoma’s Longshore Union Local 23 has elevated several dozen workers to full membership and selected more than 200 new workers to serve as casual laborers.
But while Holdeman acknowledges the new business that the containership consortium has brought, he notes that the port poached the business from its Puget Sound rival, the Port of Seattle, rather than winning new business for the Puget Sound region.
The port should be recruiting business that now crosses the docks in California or British Columbia ports, he said.
Holdeman said he’s concerned that the Port of Tacoma, because of its debt burden, can’t keep up with the investments that Canadian ports and ports of Southern California are undertaking to make cargo handling more efficient.
The Port of Long Beach, he noted, is spending more than $1 billion building a high-technology container terminal to cut container handling costs.
Bacon contended the port is moving forward to keep its facilities up-to-date, but in a more penny-wise way. The Port of Tacoma, she noted, is spending $22 million to prepare the port’s Terminals 3 and 4 for the megasized ships that might soon call here.
The port is straightening and strengthening the piers and installing 100-foot-gauge container crane rails to handle the big cranes needed to load and unload the longer, taller and wider ships being built.
The port isn’t investing in new cranes, she said, because the terminal operators who lease the piers from the port typically buy the cranes.
Holdeman said the ports of Tacoma and Seattle need to form a closer alliance to attract new business to the region. The former port executive, whose job was eliminated in a reorganization at the port, said he isn’t talking a merger of the two ports but a more solid partnership.
Bacon said the Port of Tacoma Commission has worked closely with the Port of Seattle on such regional issues as better highway and rail transportation, and on reforming the federal Harbor Maintenance Tax, which gives Canadian ports a financial advantage in importing foreign goods bound for the U.S. and on reducing the two ports’ environmental footprints.
Holdeman said the two ports need to go beyond the status quo and create a joint marketing effort for Puget Sound and winning new business, not just trading business with each other.
The challenger said the port commission’s mistakes in investing more than $20 million in a proposed railyard site in Thurston County at Maytown that the port later was forced to sell and in committing millions of dollars to a container terminal on the Blair-Hylebos Peninsula that was never built have left a legacy of debt, hampering the port’s ability to modernize.
Bacon said the port, under new CEO John Wolfe, is carefully upgrading its infrastructure and finding new customers to diversify its business base. The port, for instance, has attracted two new shipyards and ship repair facilities to its World War II-vintage former Todd Shipyard with minimal investment. It has revived its log export business and repaired older buildings to attract new tenants.
The port is aggressively marketing the former Kaiser Aluminum mill site after a proposed crude oil terminal there proved unfeasible, she said.
Any port that invests in its own future welfare has debt that stems from the expenses of buying new property and improving it, Bacon said.
Holdeman said that as a disaster preparedness professional for much of his life, he has worked with dozens of different governments. That ability to work with many different groups, he said, makes him an excellent candidate to help the port through a new era of cooperation.
Bacon countered that there’s no substitute for the years of experience she’s had as a port commissioner, as the former director of the World Trade Center Tacoma and as an aide to former Gov. Booth Gardner.
“I’ve got the experience, the relationships and the knowledge to carry the port to an era of prosperity,” she said.
Holdeman said the port’s missteps during Bacon’s tenure on the five-member commission are good reason for the voters to bring a new perspective to the commission.
“It’s time for a new generation of leadership,” he said.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663 john.gillie@ thenewstribune.com