Amazing how cavalier, even dismissive, some folks in one place can be about something that, in another locale, people regard as precious and important.
Up in Seattle, the mayor and cohorts are working strenuously to chase away jobs at the Port of Seattle created through a contract with Foss Maritime for use of the currently idle Terminal 5 for two purposes: assembly of components of an LNG plant to be built in Prince Rupert, British Columbia, and for hosting Shell’s Alaskan exploration and drilling fleet.
The contract was a bit of a financial windfall for the port, which isn’t getting any revenue from Terminal 5 while it figures out what to do with that facility and how to pay for it. The plan has been to modernize and expand that terminal to handle the increasingly big container ships calling on ports. That plan is complicated by the Port of Seattle’s proposed Seaport Alliance affiliation with the Port of Tacoma and realities of the global logistics business.
Even if it does go ahead with the project, construction on the current timetable wouldn’t start until 2017 and the new terminal wouldn’t be operating until 2018.
In the meantime, the port gets to put that facility to work, see some much-needed revenue and generate jobs — or it will if the lease holds up.
It’s the plans for hosting Shell that is generating the uproar. It’s unclear how much legal leverage the city has; its view that the port needs a different permit for that activity might not withstand a court challenge.
But never underestimate the ability or intent of a government entity such as the city of Seattle to drag its feet, legally nitpick and generally obstruct and delay until the opponent gives up and goes away.
The port, Foss and Shell find themselves in a toxic stew of sentiments and influences in which environmental issues, the city’s leftward tilt and even the cargo cult of anthropogenic climate change are not the only, or even most significant, ingredients. There’s also a prevailing attitude, at least in officialdom, that the jobs generated at a place such as the port and by activities such as hosting an oil-drilling fleet, not to mention the people likely to fill such jobs, are increasingly unnecessary in the municipal vision of Seattle’s future.
King County’s unemployment rate in March 2015 was, at 4.1 percent, the lowest in the state. The tech boom that is fueling that prosperity, sending housing prices soaring and squeezing out industrial activities and their middle-class employees appears more broad-based and substantial than the dot-com boom that ended so badly. Amazon gets a lot of attention for its voracious appetite for office space, but it’s not the only culprit.
However, in Mason County, they probably wish they could pick and choose which jobs they’ll take and which they’ll disdain. The March unemployment rate there was 7.8 percent, and it’s likely going to grow. First an Oregon company said it plans to close a 215-employee plywood mill it purchased in Shelton, once a replacement facility in its home state is completed in 2016.
Then Simpson Lumber, continuing the decade-long unwinding of what once was one of the state’s largest forest-products operations, sold its Shelton-area operations to Sierra Pacific. Simpson plans to wind down operations by June 30; the mills employ 270. Sierra Pacific plans to build a replacement mill, but it won’t be ready until 2017 and it will employ 150 to 200. That plan has implications for Tacoma; Sierra Pacific is postponing a planned lumber mill at Frederickson until after the Mason County project. Meanwhile, Simpson is left with a door mill in McCleary and properties in Shelton it is considering how to “repurpose.”
What Mason County faces is a repeat of a saga that has played out in hundreds of small communities dependent on a single industry or a handful of employers for their livelihood.
As it happens, Mason County was thinking about its economic future well before the one-two punch of mill closings. A countywide exercise in strategy writing resulted in a plan in which the three preferred industries for development or recruitment were tourism, food processing and value-added agriculture (including aquaculture) and advanced manufacturing.
The challenge will be translating those ideas into companies and jobs in the face of competition from other regions pursuing the same ideas and often the same sectors, such as tourism. Mason County has a nice setting along the Hood Canal, but for now there’s no high-profile, signature attraction.
The unattractive alternatives include a continuing decline as people leave for opportunities elsewhere, or perhaps becoming a bedroom community for Olympia, Tacoma, Kitsap County, even Seattle — unless there’s a formula for snaring all the jobs the latter decides it has no place or use for.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at email@example.com.