The Marine Terminal, An Artifact From Olympia’s Industrial Past

December 14th, 2016 by Ken

By Joe Illing

I own a small commercial property in downtown Olympia. It’s a short walk from the port peninsula’s Marine Terminal (what most of us call “the port”). Needless to say, over the years I’ve taken a keen interest in what happens there, or what doesn’t happen there. I have a point of view concerning the peninsula that’s distinctly different from those who work for, or receive funds from, the Port of Olympia.

They see the Marine Terminal as one of the big pistons that drive Thurston County’s economic engine. They shower us with facts, figures, charts and statistics in order to validate their assertion that the terminal bestows upon us a bounty of invaluable benefits. These including five-hundred and sixty-four  jobs “associated” with the terminal (that means some are essentially part-time).* They point to a $135,000 annual profit as proof of the terminal’s health … if you don’t count “depreciation” and pretend equipment and other buildings last forever, not to mention that a profit margin of a few thousandths of a percent on “business revenue” of $33,000,000 is laudatory.

All of this information, however, is essentially useless if we’re to assess the value of the terminal to the general population. It compares apples to apples and fails to ask the single most important question concerning the Marine Terminal … does it meet the needs of post-industrial Olympia? Does it add to, inhibit or subtract from the public good?

The Marine Terminal occupies a unbelievably priceless piece of geography, a peninsula that juts out into the headwaters of Budd Inlet, offering unparalleled vistas of snowcapped mountains rising from the sound. Its shoreline invites incomparable recreational opportunities. Urban amenities are within a short, easy walk. It’s truly what the old timers once called “The Pearl of the Puget Sound.”

Yet, in spite of its beauty and its unique attributes, and in spite of a century-long evolution of the community it serves, the terminal remains stuck in a 19th century mindset … and we use it for a log dump. It’s like defacing the Mona Lisa.

The Marine Terminal is a vestige of Thurston County’s industrial past. Over the ninety-five years since the Port of Olympia was formally chartered, that era has vanished. The peninsula once hosted thirty lumber mills, five shingle mills, a veneer factory, a cannery and numerous ship builders.** It was a busy, productive place with plenty of living wage jobs that generated big ripples in the local economy.

But those days are long gone. All that remains is what’s called a “weekend port”* in maritime lingo (that translates a “small potatoes”). It has a marina, a children’s museum, a tragically wrong-placed sewer treatment plant, a couple of fancy office buildings and a farmer’s market, all of which surround its once vibrant, beating heart … the “log dump.” This is a mechanized no-man’s land where monstrous machines belch diesel fumes while tossing around whole forests of logs as if they were pick-up sticks.

Is this responsible stewardship of such a singular asset? I think not. It’s long since time to consider alternatives.

To see one such alternative just drive north to Granville Island in Vancouver, BC.*** The similarities between it and our port peninsula are striking. They both share an industrial past. They both dredged their surrounding waters and expanded their land mass with its fill from 1911 through 1915. They both welcomed manufacturing industries in the early 1920s and prospered through a couple of world wars well into mid-century.

Then new economies, new methods of transportation and new ways of doing business changed old business models. And that’s when the shared destinies of these two entities diverged. In the 1970s the Canadians decided to bid adieu to the industrial use of the island and welcomed market activities. Today Granville Island, with half the land mass of the port peninsula, is alive with activity … and prosperity. Today that island boasts 275 businesses that employ more than 2,500 people. It generates more than $215,000,000 in economic activity each year, and fills Vancouver’s tax coffers to overflowing.

The Port of Olympia’s Marine Terminal, stuck with its out of date business model, posts predictably disappointing results. If you compare our peninsula with Vancouver’s island you must inevitably conclude that the terminal is not serving its community well.

It’s time to close the books on the Marine Terminal and develop the peninsula to the benefit of the all. Surround it with marinas and other maritime uses, provide access to Budd Inlet for all citizens of Thurston County, create housing for those who want to re-urbanize and turn the unpeopled port of today into a vibrant neighborhood that contributes in a meaningful way to the economic and cultural health of our community.

It’s time the Port Commissioners exercised their fiduciary responsibility to the citizens and taxpayers of Thurston County and take a critical look at the peninsula and unlock its matchless potential. It’s time for them to answer this simple question … does the Marine Terminal represent the “highest and best” use of the peninsula land?

If not it’s time to begin the transformation of the terminal from artifact of an industrial past to an icon of a dynamic future. It can, and should, be done.

*per Port Commissioner Bill McGregor

**, Margaret Riddle


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