Vancouver Port Commissioners: The candidates in their own words

While the region’s largest economic engine wrestles with aggressive revenue generation and development plans, an important seat opens

Following are excerpts from a conversation with port commissioner candidates Brian Wolfe and Bills Hughes, extended from a more abbreviated version published in the Oct. 14 edition of the Vancouver Business Journal.

Brian Wolfe and Bill Hughes are vying for the vacated Vancouver Port District No. 1 seat in the Nov. 8 general election. Current commission president Robert Moser is leaving the position after 18 years. Port of Vancouver Commissioners are elected to six-year terms.

Bill Hughes career is steeped in transportation. During World War II he served in the Merchant Marines and has worked for three railroads and five truck lines. Hughes has lived in Vancouver since 1957, and in 1983 formed “piggyback” transportation company Pronto Pig. He sold the business, which was generating annual revenue of $6.9 million and had 14 employees, in 1989. Hughes has been involved with labor unions throughout his career. He has traveled extensively for business and pleasure.

Hughes said the port is the primary economic development engine for the area. “When it comes to having to make a decision, all things being equal, between environment and jobs,” he said. “I would have to lean towards jobs.”

Brian Wolfe has been an attorney in Clark County since 1969 in civil and municipal capacities, representing Battle Ground and Ridgefield since 1986. He was a member of the board of directors for the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce for 15 years. He founded the Columbia River Economic Development Council and served as chairman for 10 years. Wolfe also served on the boards of Identity Clark County and Leadership Clark County.

Wolfe said his work with clients and the community have prepared him to serve on the commission. “I view this port position as a natural extension of my experiences on the CREDC and Chamber,” said Wolfe.

VBJ: Do you think the current commission’s decision to approve a six-year industrial development district levy is the best way to fund aggressive development plans for the Port’s Columbia Gateway?
Wolfe: I haven’t been involved enough in the port activities over the past 10, six or four years to know whether the industrial development district is the best method of funding the development or not. The port is quite limited in how it creates funds. There are very few stand-alone, self-financed ports in the country.

Hughes: Just because they have the taxing authority doesn’t mean that they should necessarily use it. It should only be a last resort, and if they do actually impose a levy I would like to see a sunset clause. If the plans that they have do not come to fruition within a certain length of time, it should not be an ongoing tax. I would like to see the day when it is self sustaining. I believe that day could happen … I don’t think the public should have to pay for the house for someone else to conduct their business in.

VBJ: Communication issues caused a postponement of the levy. How would you improve communication from the port to its constituents?
Wolfe: I think the use of the word miscommunication probably identifies what happened this spring as best as anything. It occurred to me that the staff realized that they were going to need a lot of money to develop the Columbia Gateway and the Rufener properties. And realizing that, they looked around and found that they had the Industrial Development District funding available to them, but also that they had to give a notice. I think the discussion of that tax was inadvertently short timed, because they rolled it out and got resistance from all three commissioners because of that timing. I would prefer that there be a lot of opportunity to have discussion, I am a process guy.

Hughes: It was a bungled up job of communication. I think they should have ran it up the flag pole to see if anybody saluted it before they presented it to the commission. They didn’t have any time to do the necessary research and background to make an intelligent decision, and there are three intelligent people down there.

VBJ: How will you help direct the conversation regarding development of the waterfront? How would this development affect the Vancouver business and development community?
Hughes: With the railroad situation they have down there, or the lack of it, and the traffic jams they are having on the railroad, it is going to be difficult to develop that Boise Cascade property in the matter in which I would like to see it done. I would like to see something like Will Macht’s plan be implemented at least to a certain extent with a mixed-use of that property – condos, light manufacturing and certainly retail. I was really impressed by River Walk in San Antonio, and I can really envision one on our Columbia. Under that plan it would bring more business to the community and nothing succeeds like success. They are having a lot of success around Esther Short Park and I think it can spread down to the waterfront.

Wolfe: I am a believer in making the shores of the Columbia River accessible to the public. In New Orleans, I saw a river walk that blended itself with commerce and industry. The port is given the cards it is dealt, and with the Interstate Bridge on one side of the property and the railroad bridge on the other side, the idea that that property could be developed into a deepwater port is foolish. They are not going to change the railroad bridge and allow large ships to come up to where the Quay is at that dock. I really admire Macht’s plan for the Boise Cascade area. I think it was a good place to start. I share some concerns that it ought not to be turned into a residential community for the wealthy. I think there needs to be a mixed use of some residences and commerce, but I think it has to capture allowing public access back to the waterfront. I am not sure that continued use of the Quay property by the port is in its best interest. It indicated by its vote three years ago that it really doesn’t want to be in the hotel business. If you can’t use it as a deepwater port and you don’t want to be in the hotel business, then how do you play that chip to gain an advantage for the port generally? I suspect that along the way, that can be used. I know the city wants to involve more use of the waterfront and there is already an amphitheatre that the port built several years ago that is really underutilized, and maybe the city could better utilize it.

VBJ: The Port has made a contractual commitment to connect Vancouver commercially to the Portland of Portland. How important is regional cooperation to economic development this side of the river?
Hughes: It’s not a matter of choice. I think they are both going to have to cooperate to survive, because we do share some things in common, including the river and the rail lines. We are not all trying to pick at the same bone; any traffic into the Columbia River is bound to help all of the communities. We each have our own specialties and we are both doing a good job. There has not been animosity or back-biting between the two ports.

Wolfe: I agree that it is mandatory. We are on the far end of a river that most ocean-going boats prefer to avoid, but at the same time the major ports of the West Coast are inundated with new business. There is wonderful trade going on now between the Far East, India, China Japan, Korea and the West. If the ships don’t want to come 100 miles in, then we need to find a market niche to get them to come. And to compete with Portland, Longview, Kalama or Astoria, Ore., would be foolish I think. There should be cooperation among all of those ports to generate the inflow and exporting of cargo by the ship traffic. Kalama, Longview and Vancouver are the leading grain exporters in the county and we need to enhance that.

VBJ: Which Columbia River Crossing option will best serve the business community’s needs around freight mobility?
Wolfe: I am not going to make a choice today, because there is a lot of study that has to go into that question. There are groups that have discussed that Columbia River crossing for years now. The information I have so far, improving the I-5 Bridge has some issues, so if you could build it bigger, could those concrete piers withstand earthquakes? I think the answer is wide open. I think there is value to having a tunnel or adding traffic to the railroad bridge. Mayor pollard has strongly stated he is not going to lose any more of Vancouver to highways. The other issue is where it lands on the other side. There is a lot of value about going down the west side of Vancouver, but once you get across to Portland, what are you going to do? There would be a lot of construction involved.

Hughes: There are several things that I would consider. I still like my plan about a tunnel. They are less invasive. I would consider a bridge for trucks only. It is something that should be considered and would be oriented around industry. But there are a lot of plans and a person would have to look at them long and hard and there are a lot of studies to be made.

VBJ: Recently there has been a tremendous push for rail infrastructure from the Port. How will rail contribute to the opening of the Columbia River Gateway?
Wolfe: They tell us they are at capacity now for rail and near capacity for truck traffic, and as I understand it, development of the Columbia Gateway and the Rufener Properties together will double the land available. Will we then double or geometrically increase the rail and truck traffic. A new rail line is an absolute. They cannot continue to do it the way they have done it. Where do you put it – that is the big controversy. I was hoping that all the environmental issues were behind us in the sense that the Crane suit had been settled and the decision to dredge the Columbia deeper had been made, so I could just go down there and do economic development. The primary focus of the port should be economic development.

Hughes: All of the rail cars going in have to come out again. They are using the same track and you can see what they could achieve just by having an inbound and an outbound. This is probably why the circular plan around the lake looks so attractive to some people because it would just keep flowing. It would be more or less one way traffic. It’s awful to have a potential like we have and not be able to utilize it. We have a gold mine, but no means of extracting the gold with the choking effect of the railroad, or lack thereof.

VBJ: Do you think this litigation with the City of Ridgefield will impact your ability to serve?
Wolfe: The lawsuit they filed is vague. It won’t affect my role on the port commission at all. There was a change in administration and the current administration views things differently than they did when I was out there. I believe that I gave that mayor, those managers and that city council all the advice that they needed at the time, and they adopted the development agreements and the growth management that they adopted.