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Port Angeles Puts Its Economic Eggs In Many Baskets

Ed Ronco
The economy in Port Angeles is changing.

There’s a photo in the hallway of the Port of Port Angeles offices, just down the hall from the office of executive director Karen Goschen. It was taken in the 1980s, from a high angle, looking down at four ships moored at the dock. They’re surrounded by big collections of floating logs.

“It is dramatically different than the number of vessels we have today,” Goschen said.

Today it’s one at a time. This port used to export 300 million board feet of timber a year. Now it’s about 80 million board feet a year.

Harvests from federal lands in Clallam County have been extremely low since the mid-1990s. It’s a little better on state lands. But timber harvests from private lands have fluctuated wildly in the last 10 years or so.

You still see logging trucks driving down Highway 101, and there are huge stacks of timber waiting for export at the Port of Port Angeles. But it isn’t the giant part of the economic pie it used to be. The economy on the North Olympic Peninsula is changing.

“The timber industry has been and will continue to be an important leg of the economic stool on the Peninsula,” said U.S. Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor. He grew up here, and his district covers Port Angeles and the Olympic Peninsula.

Kilmer is particularly excited about something called cross-laminated timber. Instead of needing to cut a giant beam from a giant tree, smaller boards are layered in alternate directions, and glued together into one big board.

Kilmer says that’s better for the environment – smaller diameter timber can be harvested and used in a more economical way.

“And … if you can take mills that are currently not in use, and repurpose them for cross-laminated timber, that means you can use a product created in rural Washington to fuel some of the growth in other areas – in rural, urban and suburban areas,” he said.

But while Port Angeles is working on new uses for timber, it’s also expanding into other industries.

Pickleball Nets and Benches

Inside a building near the airport, workers are operating a computerized cutter. It automatically thumps and thwacks and whirrs as it slices up a thin sheet of carbon fiber composite.

Carbon fiber is used to make airplane parts. The material here at the Composite Recycling Technology Center starts out destined to be part of the Boeing 787 or 777. But as those parts are made, some scrap material is left behind.

The aerospace supplier that makes the parts in Pierce County sends its scrap here, where it’s turned into pickleball nets, park benches and more.

“Is this going to be a billion-dollar industry? No. I never thought it would be,” CEO Dave Walter said. “But can we create jobs in Port Angeles, Washington, and Clallam County? Absolutely. Can we make a difference in the world? You bet.”

Workers with no experience start out here earning around $14 an hour and can work up to earning more than $20 an hour. Walter says he thinks they can eventually get to 100 jobs.

And he likes the future of the industry – the aerospace companies seem invested in carbon fiber, which means the companies that supply them will have lots of scrap to send to this building in Port Angeles.

Eggs in Many Baskets

Whether it’s new uses for timber, or making pickleball nets and park benches out of carbon fiber, one thing seems clear: The future of the economy in Port Angeles will be based on many things, not a single, big industry.

Port Angeles City Council member Lindsey Schromen-Wawrin. He was born and raised here, and has seen a lot of changes.

When Schromen-Wawrin was a kid in the 1980s and early 90s, and Port Angeles leaned more heavily on the timber industry, you’d have seen buildings and a smokestack out there. Now, it looks like just a long dock and what appears to be a clearing in the woods.

“I think it’s a bit more of a diversified community," Schromen-Wawrin said. “But like any small town in the United States it’s really wrestling for what our place is in the modern economy.”

Maybe it’s telecommuting – that’s how Schromen-Wawrin does his day job, as an attorney.

More and more, hope is being placed on tourism – especially with the city’s place at the entrance to Olympic National Park.

Schromen-Wawrin remembers being at a Costco when he was a teenager and finding some travel books. He looked up the Olympic Peninsula.

“Port Townsend has pages and pages, and it’s got a lot on the Olympic National Park,” he said. “And then Port Angeles, and I swear, but I have no evidence for it, that it said ‘Port Angeles is a mudhole on your way to the rain forest.’”

That stuck with him. And he says that image is changing.

Schromen-Wawrin said he wants people to come here and visit the National Park and use it as a jumping off point for more exploration in the region. But he also wants them to learn this area’s history, from the Klallam communities that were up and down this shoreline, to the city that is here now and how it came to be.

He wants Port Angeles to be a destination, not just a stop. Of course, tourism brings its own set of issues, too.

“How do we welcome people to this place without destroying what this place is?”

And he says that’s the challenge that’s in front of him and the other members of the city government, the economic development officials, and the community at large: Finding a way to grow this city into the future, while holding on to the things that make it special now.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.