Job creation is a key concern for port commissioner candidates

Published on Wed, Oct 23, 2013 by Ian Ferguson

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Four candidates are gunning for two of three seats on the Port of Bellingham’s board of commissioners in the November 5 election. Renata Kowalczyk and Dan Robbins are vying for district 1, the position Scott Walker will leave vacant when his term expires at the end of 2013. Ken Bell is challenging district 2 incumbent Michael McAuley, who has served four years on the port commission.

The Port of Bellingham includes Blaine Harbor, and the port commission has the power to support projects in Blaine and Birch Bay through economic development funds, tourism funds and bonding. All four candidates shared their platforms and hopes for the commission at a candidates’ forum in Birch Bay on October 15.

District 1

Renata Kowalczyk

Kowalczyk, who currently runs a business-consulting firm, said her business background would be a major asset to the port, and her primary agenda if elected would be job creation.

Born in Poland, Kowalczyk said she moved to New York at the age of 23, “with $20 in my pocket, seeking freedom and opportunity.” She earned her MBA from Columbia University before embarking on a successful banking career on Wall Street. The 48-year-old moved to Whatcom County several years ago seeking “a community like the one I grew up in with real people who do real things.”

“The port’s job is to support enterprises for job creators,” she said. “In my current role as a business consultant, I work directly with Whatcom County businesses to help them grow and prosper by understanding what they need, and that’s what the port should be doing for their businesses.”

When asked how she would represent Blaine and Birch Bay if elected, Kowalczyk responded that she has already begun attending monthly chamber meetings in Blaine and Birch Bay to get a sense of the needs of both communities.

“I’m really interested in learning about what businesses exist in Birch Bay and Blaine and how the port can be a better partner in helping those businesses grow,” she said. “Blaine Harbor as well as the shipyard and the commercial fishermen who are at the marina are really a vital part of this community and its economic development, and I’ve been endorsed by the commercial fishermen. I will pay attention to what they need to grow, probably starting with repainting the web lockers.”

Kowalczyk said she would try to bring more transparency to the port’s decision-making process by televising meetings and making more documents available to the public online. 

When asked if she would support the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility Project with the port’s economic development funds, Kowalczyk said, “Happy tourists come back and spend more money. Clearly, being able to use facilities makes people happy, so yes, I would support it.”

Dan Robbins

Like Kowalczyk, Robbins also stressed that job creation would be his primary focus as a port commissioner.

A lifelong resident of Whatcom County, Robbins graduated from Bellingham High School and Western Washington University before beginning a long and successful business career. He has been president of seven local businesses, including Cost Cutter Toys, Children’s Co. and Interlube Sales & Distribution.

“One of the reasons I’ve been endorsed by all six county mayors, including Harry Robinson from Blaine, is because they know I’ll do anything that we can to create jobs and economic development in all the small communities,” he said. “A lot of people don’t understand that the port can get bonding money for certain projects in the communities. We don’t need any more taxpayers’ money. I would do anything that the port could do with bonding money that would help the economy in Birch Bay and Blaine in any way, shape or form.”

Robbins, 69, said he remembers the days when Birch Bay had a popular roller rink and was a bustling summer resort town. 

“It was a wonderful place then and it still is today. It’s on the cusp of growing again and anything the port can do to help create jobs in this community and help it grow, I would be part of that,” he said.

As an example of the approach he would take to driving sustainable job growth in Whatcom County, Robbins cited his participation as one of 45 shareholders in his fifth generation family business, Hama Hama Logging Company and Hama Hama Oyster Company on the Olympic Peninsula.

“We have 5,000 acres owned by 45 first cousins, and we only log 50 acres every year,” he said. “We don’t do it because some government told us that’s all we could do. We do it because it’s the right thing to do for our families down the road. It’s a sustainable logging business and a wonderful oyster company, and that’s the sort of expertise I’ll bring to the port as well.”

District 2

Michael McAuley

As the district 2 incumbent, McAuley believes the port is not a business – rather, its primary role is to support job creators, and the distinction is important for port leaders to understand.

McAuley has served four years on the port commission, and has focused on expanding the port’s regional role in economic development by establishing relationships with local government, other port districts and legislators in Olympia. A small-business owner who builds green homes, McAuley said job creation is his main priority, but that the port itself is not a job creator and shouldn’t be operated like one.

“There are 75 ports in Washington state and they’re all public ports,” he said. “You don’t need a business person to run your port. What you need are smart people who make good decisions all the time. The port is not a business. We do one thing, and we do it very well: we support business.”

In his efforts to bring economic development to Whatcom County, McAuley said he would continue to look for businesses that are right for the waterfront.

“I want to find something that diversifies our economy and makes us a larger presence in the Pacific Rim,” he said.

McAuley said he is proud of the work done by the port over the four years he’s served on the commission. He cited the expansion of the airport, efforts to revitalize the Bellingham waterfront and the introduction of high-speed Internet to communities in the Mt. Baker foothills. 

McAuley said he wanted the port to get involved in building a boat ramp in Birch Bay in 2012, but his fellow commissioners turned down the proposal. He added that the port has tourism dollars that could be allocated to support the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility project.

Ken Bell

Like the other candidates, Ken Bell said he is focused on job creation. He said his business experience makes him well qualified to run the port.

A businessman with expertise in port logistics, Bell, 55, left Ferndale-based Recomp of Washington, Inc. in 1994 to start his own business. He turned over several failing paper and recycling companies, then founded and currently runs Best Recycling, which operates around the world, including at McMurdo Station in Antarctica and in the Yukon Territories.

“I love ports, I love the waterfront, I love economic development and as you can probably tell, I’m a bit of a salesman,” he said. “I think what this port needs more than anything right now is a salesman in their operations because what we’ve got to do next is bring somebody here who can have an economic impact on this county.”

As a property owner on Birch Bay Drive, Bell said he has a personal interest in the Birch Bay community.

“We will have your interests in mind, because we’re property owners here,” he said, referring to himself, his wife and his two daughters. “We care about the waterfront here; we care about the character of this place.”

When asked if he would support the creation of restroom facilities on the Birch Bay waterfront as part of the Birch Bay Drive and Pedestrian Facility Project, Bell said he thought restrooms would be a great addition.

“I can speak from personal experience that I have been running along this waterfront and wished I had them from time to time, so from an economic standpoint I could see supporting that. We have some bonding power that we can provide from the port that would assist financially,” he said.

Ballots were mailed on October 18. 

If you haven’t received your ballot by Friday, October 25, contact the auditor’s office at 360/676-6742.