Port of Vancouver after 100 years

The Columbian - Cami Joner

A breakfast crowd celebrated the Port of Vancouver’s 100th anniversary Friday with speeches, balloons and cupcakes, as well as heaps of praise for its past and predictions of an industrious future.

The  annual Port Re:Port event at the Red Lion Hotel Vancouver at the Quay also allowed elected officials, such as Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., to bid farewell to Larry Paulson, 65, who will retire this month as the port’s executive director. Paulson gave a recap of the port’s 2011 business, which generated $5.7 million more revenue than in 2010 through increasing vessel calls, wind energy imports and new industrial leases.

He ceremonially handed the reins over to Todd Coleman, the port’s deputy executive director. Coleman, 43, is slated to take over as executive director of the rail-focused port district. Paulson has been executive director since 1999.

The change in leadership comes at a time when the Vancouver port is welcoming large corporate additions, such as a new facility for Farwest Steel on land formerly owned by the port, and a potash export operation run by Australian mining giant BHP Billiton.

The port also continues to build up its rail operations with the $150 million West Vancouver Freight Access project, ongoing construction to add approximately 27 miles of track to speed cargo and handle more of it.

Cantwell acknowledged Paulson’s efforts to land the rail project, expected to finish up in 2017.

“We need to continue this work going forward,” said Cantwell, who proposed the Freight Act, legislation being considered this year to create a national freight transportation strategy.

The Vancouver port was established in 1912 by a landslide vote of 630 to 182. It started as a municipal dock on the Columbia River and grew when voters approved the addition of 52 acres of swampland in 1917.

Today, it is the state’s third-oldest port district on 2,127 acres of property that includes: 800 acres of industrial facilities, more than 500 acres of land for future development and more than 100 acres of shovel-ready land. About 570 acres of port property have been set aside to mitigate development, with another 157 acres set aside for wetland banking.

The Port of Vancouver includes four miles of waterfront property, 106 river miles from the Pacific Ocean. Its shipping channel is 43 feet deep, and the Port  operates two 140-metric ton mobile harbor cranes.

“I think the voters in 1912 would feel great satisfaction with where their vision has led this community,” Paulson said during his progress report on the port’s 2011 business.

He applauded new infrastructure poised to boost business with a three-foot deeper shipping channel -- a project completed in 2010. Paulson also advocated ongoing rail work and replacement of the Interstate 5 Bridge with a new Columbia River Crossing.

A successful year

“The Port of Vancouver had a healthy year in 2011,” Paulson said.

It was led by  a bumper crop of wind energy imports, which grew to 106,000 metric tons of shipments, up from 25,000 metric tons in 2010. But Paulson expects to see a decline in wind energy components  after 2012, when federal tax credits end for developers of renewable energy.

“Like the wind, this cargo will gust and taper off,” he said.

Increasing imports of other materials, such as steel and wood pulp, were  not enough to make up for an overall 1.8 percent decline in total import cargo that was  driven by a 100,000-ton drop in Subaru imports after the Japanese earthquake and tsunami last year.

The port’s export business remained flat, with about 4.8 million metric tons of outgoing cargo bolstered by big shipments of lumber and pulp to China and Korea.

Paulson said 94 percent of the port’s vast industrial space is occupied, thanks in part to aluminum extrusion company, Sapa Profiles’ lease of the 142,800-square-foot former Panasonic building. Among other new tenants, the port welcomed Puget Sound Pipe and Supply in 2011 and Brewcraft USA, which leased 38,000 square feet for about 20 employees.

Industrial construction at the Port includes a $48 million facility for Farwest Steel Corp., which anticipates a fall opening for the steel fabrication plant it is building on land it purchased from the port. United Grain Corp. invested  $80 million to expand its grain-handling operations and provide more storage for corn and soybeans.

Port managers also are negotiating with BHP Billiton on a long-term lease agreement so the company can build an export center for potash --  a natural mineral fertilizer --  on roughly 60 acres of the port’s 218-acre Terminal 5, the former Alcoa/Evergreen aluminum smelter site.

BHP Billiton expects to invest several hundred million dollars in the project and to create 40 jobs. It wants to start operating the facility by 2015.

“The port’s mission is to provide economic benefit to our community through leadership, partnership and stewardship in marine and industrial development,” said Nancy Baker, port commissioner and president of the port’s three-member commission.

Baker, 74, delivered her keynote  on the Vancouver port with obvious pride, talking about its history and its growth.

“The 111 square miles that make up the port district are now home to more than 300,000 Clark County residents,” Baker said. “Those constituents, together with all of you here in this room and our partners around the globe, make up our community, and we couldn’t be successful without you.”

Elected in 2002, Baker was the port’s first female commissioner. She formerly served as Paulson’s administrative assistant.

Baker and fellow commissioners Jerry Oliver and Brian Wolfe voted 2-1 last fall to adopt an $84.65 million spending plan for 2012, up 46 percent from the port’s 2011 budget. The rail-focused spending plan included a 1 percent hike in property taxes, bumping up the port’s property tax collections by about $99,000 to roughly $10 million.

The port plans to borrow $80 million from the federal government to help pay for its freight rail project, and officials said the 1 percent increase in property tax revenue was needed to show lenders the port is financially stable.

Securing the funding is one of the biggest challenges ahead, according to Coleman, the port’s new executive director. Yet a loan from the Federal Rail Administration could provide thousands of new construction jobs by 2017, he said.

As an example, Coleman cited work on the port’s seven-mile-long rail-loop track at Terminal 5, completed in 2010.

“More than 530 people were employed during some stage of this job, cumulatively working nearly 30,000 hours,” he said.

Port officials estimate the ongoing West Vancouver Freight Access project will generate 9 million work hours. It remains to be seen whether the jobs will be held by local workers.

“Highly skilled people move in and out of a project like players in a symphony,” Coleman said.

He said port officials hope the symphony continues for another 100 years.

“In the meantime,” Coleman said. “Pardon our dust and the flurry of activity as we invest in and build the projects today that will provide jobs well into our future.”