Edmonds Candidate Forum: Port commission candidates

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Edmonds Port Commission candidates, from left: Fred Gouge, Bruce Faires, Lora Petso, Susan Paine and Steven Johnston.

Here are highlights of the Port of Edmonds Commission portion of Monday night’s candidates’ forum sponsored by the Edmonds Chamber of Commerce, which drew a full house to the Council Chambers. You can see our earlier summary of Edmonds City Council candidates here. and Edmonds School Board candidates here.

Edmonds Port Commissioner District 1

Incumbent Fred Gouge

Gouge’s opponent, Angela Harris, was unable to attend the forum due to a business commitment, so he read a four-minute statement in lieu of answering questions.

He noted that he has lived in Edmonds since 1962, been a marina tenant for 40-plus years, worked for the Port of Edmonds while going to college and attended port commission meetings for four years before he ran for port commission. He has been a port commissioner for the past 18 years.

Gouge also cited his community involvement, which includes serving on the City of Edmonds Economic Impact Arts Advisory group and as the port liaison to the Edmonds City Council, plus work as a former member of the Edmonds Transportation Committee and the Edmonds Crossing Project, and as a member of the Edmonds Sea Scout youth boating program board and the Snohomish County Board of Economic Development.

Gouge pointed to his 32 years of business experience in the aerospace engineering field. Now retired from that work, he is a real estate broker.

“My goal is to continue to be an environmental and financial steward of port assets,” Gouge said, adding that the port “is a five-star environmental facility, one of the few in Puget Sound.”

“The port has reduced public bond debt from $18 million to $3 million in the last 10 years from revenues and restructuring our bond debt, twice, not using public tax dollars,” Gouge said. “We will be debt free in 30 months with over $12 million in reserves.”

Gouge said that when he began his tenure as port commissioner in 1999, “we had less than $5 million in the bank and we had a brand new marina and we had to figure out how to make everything work and we were in great financial straits.

“We have not raised taxes in the last 10 years and we do not intend to do so, Gouge added. “We try to operate the port as a self-funded business.”

Gouge said he has played a leadership role in ensuring the vibrancy of the Edmonds waterfront, including the Desination Edmonds program that promotes Edmonds businesses to guest boaters who dock at the Edmonds Marina. The port’s new tourist attraction, Puget Sound Express Whale Watching excursions, have attracted 15,000 passengers to Edmonds this year. The port marina is now at capacity, Gouge added.

As for the Harbor Square Business Complex, the port will continue to operate the Harbor Square business complex “the way it has been for the next 10 to 15 years from revenues of over $1.8 million,” using those — not tax dollars — for infrastructure repairs.

On the west side of the railroad tracks, the port will be focused on bringing new boats and marina-related businesses to port property. “Preserving our Edmonds waterfront is what I’ve done for the last 18 years as your commissioner,” Gouge said.

Edmonds Port Commissioner District 3

Bruce Faires

Incumbent Bruce Faires

Faires says the port has worked hard to promote tourism and is “in great financial health.” Environmental issues are a big issue in this election, for whatever reason,” he said. The biggest environmental challenge for the Edmonds Marsh is stormwater runoff, Faires said, and the Port of Edmonds-owned Harbor Square Business Complex contributes 3 percent of that runoff. “The marsh belongs to the city,” Faires said. “Your port has spent about $4 million in revenue from port businesses in cleaning up Harbor Square contamination. Our port clearly values the health of the marsh,” he said.

Challenger Lora Petso

Petso, a former Edmonds City Councilmember, said that she was asked to run for the port commission, and “many of the people who asked me to run were concerned about the marsh.” The issue is important, she said, because if the port “does something wrong regarding the marsh, we may not be able to correct it quickly and we might not be able to correct it at all.” Petso also said there are concerns about the port’s responsive to the public.

Edmonds Port Commissioner District 5

Susan Paine

Challenger Susan Paine

Paine, a former Edmonds School Board member, has lived in Edmonds for 15 years and said she was also asked to run for the port commission. She recently retired from the City of Seattle, where she worked on regulatory and land use issues. Paine said her father was a world class ecologist and “I grew up doing science in the real world.” She said she is committed to preserving the Edmonds Marsh, and “also making sure we have a solid economic driver in the port.”

Steve Johnston

Incumbent (appointed) Steven Johnston

Johnston was appointed 18 months ago to fill the position vacated by the retirement of long-time port commissioner Mary Lou Block. He pointed to his 35 years of experience as an environmental program manager, ending up as CEO of Edmonds-based environmental and engineering firm Landau and Associates. Johnson said that the commission has “done a spectacular job of looking out for the environmental well being of the port.”

Here were the questions to all port candidates, as posed by forum moderator David Cornell:

The primary mission of the Port of Edmonds is economic development. With fishing revenues on the decline, how should the port reposition itself for the future and how will those changes benefit our community.

Faires: About 5 percent of the port’s revenue comes from taxes, with the remainder from port-based businesses, both at the marine and Harbor Square. “The revenue that’s generated from those businesses will in fact be the replacement revenue for what needs to be fixed in 20 or 30 years,” he said.

Petso said she’s spent the past five months researching how other ports handle economic development. One of them has been very specific about setting priorities, such as those based on water uses, creating living wage jobs and tourism. “I would like to see us have that kind of discussion about economic development and include the public in that discussion,” she said and try to set some priorities about what we find appropriate for the port location.”

Johnston said the port is concerned about the decline in the fisheries industry. “The whole flavor of the boating industry is likely to change over time and that’s why we’ll have to keep our eye on the ball, and make sure that we are able to reconfigure and respond to the changing boating environment.

Paine: “The fishery is declining,” she said. “That’s been going on for years.” Part of the port’s job should be to have a “very flexible business plan” to ensure they can accommodate future changes. That should include a climate action plan, “because there’s going to be climate changes that happen.

Why and how is the Port of Edmonds important to us and what about your background makes you the right person to serve this mission?

Paine: There’s a “mutually beneficial aspect” between the port’s activities and the City of Edmonds and the benefits that come back to the city from the port,” Paine said. She added she would bring “creativity and maximum flexibility with the opportunities that the port hasn’t yet taken a look at, such as an educational center and technology opportunities.

Johnston: The port brings tourism to Edmonds, he said, pointing to the current whale watching excursions and the Destination Edmonds program that promotes local businesses to boaters. It  has also begun a feasibility study on the construction of a possible public parking structure  “There’s a lot of interfaces we could have with the city on future economic development,” he said.

Faires: The port is important both economically and environmentally to both the citizens of Edmonds and Woodway, he said. “In order to run a good business you have to be environmentally sensitive, and we are.” Faires said he wants to continue as a commissioner “because our job isn’t done yet. We haven’t done everything we can for the marsh and we haven’t done everything we can for the community.”

Petso: Noting her long history supporting environmental issues and her reputation as a financial watchdog, Petso said that “now is probably a very good time for a port commissioner with those two characteristics.”

Explain the role you believe the port has in relationship to the Edmonds Marsh and its future.

Petso: The port is at least a 10 percent owner of the marsh and the port is also an adjacent property owner to the northern part of the marsh. As a result as a property owner if can have a major impact in what happens at the marsh. She suggested the port look at initiatives that would not only clean up and restore the marsh but also use it for economic development — such as partnering with college environmental programs.

Faires: “It’s important to Harbor Square, and it’s important to the port, and it’s important to our environmental mission that we do everything we can to support the effort to rehabilitate the marsh. The port has already spent $1.4 million to clean up contaminated soil that existed at Harbor Square when the port purchased the property, Faires noted.

Paine: The Edmonds Marsh is one of the last functioning marshes along Puget Sound and is “our version of the Grand Canyon,” she said. The time is right for the port to start focusing on a higher level of environmental restoration there, and to work closely with local businesses, the city and state to address the issue of stormwater runoff, she said. “We need to have some creative thinking and i’s time for a change right now.”

Johnston said he found it interesting that the discussion was focused on “starting” marsh restoration activities, “because they started a long time ago at the Port of Edmonds.” The port has made a significant investment in activities that have benefited the marsh, including filtration for storm water management systems and catch basins. “We’re the only entity that filters its stormwater before it enters the marsh and it’s a very small percentage that enters the marsh.”

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