These positions tend to be lesser known than their equivalents in cities and counties. But their policies certainly shape the region.
The economic impact of the ports is huge. They take credit for creating tens of thousands of jobs. And they spend millions of dollars — on big infrastructure.
“For example, we just dedicated Terminal 5 in Seattle and that’s going to be over a $300 million investment, just on the part of the port,” said Clare Petrich, the Tacoma Port Commission president who is retiring after six terms.
Terminal 5 is near West Seattle, but it’s not uncommon to hear Petrich talking about it. The two ports formed a Northwest Seaport Alliance in 2015, motivated in part by the need to upgrade Terminal 5, so it will be able to handle the much larger container ships that are now common internationally. A similar project is being planned for Tacoma.
By combining forces to take advantage of opportunities in the marine cargo business, Petrich says they can save money on investments in things such as dredging and larger cranes, while also marketing the entire region as a destination for international customers.
Petrich says directing the ports is like running a huge business, for the community: “You are planning for the future, you are setting the mission and the vision.”
She says the spending they do comes more from revenue they generate from the shipping industry than from taxes.
In Seattle, there’s also discussion of building a new facility for cruise ships on the waterfront, just south of the Bainbridge Island ferry docks.
In Tacoma, work on zoning for 5,000 acres in the tideflats is just getting started. And permitting is almost complete on a controversial facility for liquefied natural gas.
As she gets ready to leave office after 24 years, Petrich says she hopes voters will choose candidates who understand the importance of industry in creating family-wage jobs.
“If we want to have a diversified economy, if we actually want to combat that income inequity that exists in our area, we have to be dedicated to the preservation of industrial lands,” she said.
A port commissioner must be skilled in handling both the international customers in the shipping industry who hail from all over the world, Petrich says, as well as the local companies in the U.S. who are providing goods for export or bringing them to market here.