Port of Tacoma

Path to a new Port of Tacoma CEO lies in retreat with Port of Seattle leaders

A view of the Blair Waterway at the Port of Tacoma earlier this year. The port commission will hold a retreat Oct. 28 with its new Northwest Seaport Alliance.
A view of the Blair Waterway at the Port of Tacoma earlier this year. The port commission will hold a retreat Oct. 28 with its new Northwest Seaport Alliance. kmartin@thenewstribune.com

Port commissioners say they are ready to talk about the Port of Tacoma’s future, and part of that discussion includes looking for a new CEO.

But the job the new CEO takes over will be far different from what it was six years ago, when current CEO John Wolfe took the helm. Since then the port has weathered a recession and formed the Northwest Seaport Alliance with its former rival, the Port of Seattle. Wolfe now also leads the alliance.

In making the change, the Port of Tacoma licensed around 85 percent of its properties, based on gross revenues, to the Seaport Alliance. The new Port of Tacoma CEO will govern what remains, with Wolfe continuing as the alliance CEO.

One commissioner doesn’t think having separate executives for the remaining lands will pencil out on the port’s balance sheet.

Another said he fears the lines between the port and the alliance are too blurred.

“Are we clear about our relationship with the alliance and what’s in the alliance?” asked commissioner Don Meyer on Monday. “At some point in time we are going to have a conversation about that.”

That time may come next week, when the Northwest Seaport Alliance’s managing members have a retreat in SeaTac.

CEO TO BE DISCUSSED ON ALLIANCE RETREAT

Tacoma port commission president Connie Bacon advocated for a closed-door session Thursday with fellow commissioners to talk about qualities they desire in a new CEO and what that job will eventually entail. But state law allows executive sessions only to evaluate qualifications for specific applicants, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

“It sounds like what they are doing is bogus,” Nixon said. “There is no allowed purpose for an executive session that would allow a body like the port commission to discuss the qualities for a CEO” behind closed doors.

Instead, Bacon shifted the topic to a seaport alliance retreat in SeaTac on Oct. 28. It’s a public meeting, but why with the alliance?

“Any decision we make affects the alliance,” Bacon said.

WILL TACOMA PORT HAVE A CEO?

The alliance recently celebrated its first year. By year five it and the ports must operate independently. Wolfe now also heads the alliance, which saw a 4 percent improvement in container imports in September compared with last year, though total container volumes were flat.

Many executives of the seaport alliance are doing double duty as executives at the Port of Tacoma. Forming a wholly separate executive structure at the Port of Tacoma in the next five years will cost millions of dollars, said port commissioner Don Johnson, and he says that expense isn’t necessary for the success of the port.

“That’s going to cost us $15 million to $20 million to do that,” Johnson said. “I don’t think we are going to get any (financial) benefit from doing that. … It (a separate executive team) might provide an emotional or symbolic benefit.”

Johnson said the port’s most recent budget forecast, which estimates costs and revenues through 2021, doesn’t account for those costs.

The Port of Seattle licensed 20 percent of its properties, based on revenues, to the alliance. What remains in Seattle’s portfolio includes the Fishermen’s Terminal, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the cruise ship terminals.

Commissioner Dick Marzano said Tacoma’s non-alliance properties are not as well defined, and some are adjacent to those managed by the alliance.

“Are we ever going to utilize those for the seaport alliance? Are we going to put more (land) in the seaport alliance or leave it like it is?” Marzano asked.

The Northwest Seaport Alliance retreat will be held all day Oct. 28 at the Crowne Plaza Seattle Airport, 17338 International Blvd., SeaTac. The meeting might begin as early as 8:30 a.m.

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

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