Let’s Talk With Brian Wolfe: You never do anything by yourself

Former Port of Vancouver commissioner shares his thoughts on history, economic development and more

Brian Wolfe

Q: Tell me a little bit about the history of how you became a Port of Vancouver commissioner.

A: I’ve been involved in local politics since I came to town in 1969. My first political campaign was in 1970, they wanted me to be the campaign manager for a state representative in the Republican Party. I later became County Chairman. I’ve been involved in local politics a long time. I’ve represented two or three mayors. I’ve always involved. I never wanted to be an elected. I was a behind-the-scenes guy.

I was city attorney in Ridgefield and I watched the port commissioners out there, and I thought, ‘If I ever want to be an elected, that’s something I could do.’ In 2005, I became a solo practitioner with my law firm, and that same year, Bob Moser announced that he was going to retire as port commissioner. I thought, ‘You know, this is my chance. I could be a port commissioner, I could help on leases, I could do this and that, I may even get a trip out of town.’ I figured it was low key, quiet, behind-the-scenes kind of stuff.

Then I had to move from Salmon Creek to Minnehaha in order to run, moved two weeks before the filing deadline.

Q: What do you think were some of your biggest accomplishments during your time as a port commissioner?

A: You never do anything by yourself, and I found out real early that a commissioner needs to be careful what he brings to the table because the staff don’t want to make any commitments based on just one commissioner.

I ended up being involved with both of those mobile harbor cranes (at the Port), and at the time that we got them, they were the two largest such cranes in North America.

The purchase of the Alcoa property, 200 acres, that was a big deal as well.

The whole rail system out there now is huge. When I got elected, it was a $55 million project to provide access. Now it’s a $250 million project.

We did a lot in my 12 years. The whole rail thing, there’s so many spinoffs.

On the environmental side, we have the wetland mitigation bank now.

Q: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced as a port commissioner?

A: It was always interesting when we were given a sniff of a new tenant, and sometimes those sniffs never turned into reality. We got the community through the recession. When everyone else was laying people off, we were bringing in wind towers and project cargo.

Also, of course, the oil terminal. Other than that, I don’t remember ever having any serious challenges. Going through the hiring process for CEO after our CEO left us. We didn’t have a process in place to replace the person we appointed as CEO, so we had to create a process and go through that. The challenge was that we didn’t have a process in place.

We had a challenge when UGC and the Longshore had a walk out and we had to be neutral.

Q: What are your thoughts on all of the economic development that is now going on in the Vancouver area?

A: There’s two ways to look at it. One, it’s economic development, so we’re bringing in jobs, making jobs, that’s a good thing. Before the recession, there was a housing bubble and it popped. There’s that much housing going on again, a smaller bubble is being created again. The negative is, is the community prepared for growth?

I remember driving out on Mill Plain one day in east Vancouver years ago thinking, ‘What have I done?’ As chair of the CREDC, I brought all these people here. All the mayors who hired me out in Battle Ground and such, they wanted me to bring all these jobs for their kids. Well, that doesn’t really happen. Businesses come in and they need people that we haven’t trained for those jobs, so they bring in their engineers, people who are trained for those jobs.

Q: What do you think are a few crucial things that the port commissioners need to keep in mind going forward?

A: The commissioners need to be sure they have professionals on the staff who know how to go out and find potential tenants/customers. Commissioners don’t usually get to bring in new tenants.

As far as projects are concerned, they need to keep working on Centennial Industrial Park, building more space there. What we could have done with the money from the Vancouver Energy terminal, we could’ve spread economic development money throughout the county.

I suppose, in hindsight, now that we’ve gotten through that debacle, this commission needs to be more conscious of transparency. We thought we were being transparent, but there are folks in this community who don’t believe that.

Q: How are you planning on staying involved with things going on at the port?

A: I’ve all of a sudden gotten too busy again. Since I’m recently removed as a port commissioner, my daughter has said to me I’ve got to take care of the 6-year-old here, he needs to have someone with him for two hours in the morning before he gets to kindergarten, and you’re the guy.

I’d like to keep my finger in it. I have a lot of respect for the staff, and the other commissioners, and I think they do for me.

I’ve been practicing law still all along as well, and I plan to continue.

Joanna Yorke-Payne
Joanna Yorke is the managing editor of the Vancouver Business Journal. She has worked in the journalism field since 2010 after graduating from the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University in Pullman. Yorke worked at The Reflector Newspaper in Battle Ground for six years and then worked at and helped start ClarkCountyToday.com.

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