By Ron Dunning, March 29, 2014, Walla Walla Union Bulletin
The announcement of a new business coming to the Walla Walla Valley often results in headlines in the newspaper. Whether it’s the Railex Wine Warehouse or The Scoular Grain Company, these types of announcements are positive and well received.
However, equally important yet often overlooked is the Port’s business retention efforts.
The Port Commission believes retaining existing businesses, when possible, should remain a top priority. In this column, I would like to share some recent business retention efforts.
Late last year, the Packaging Corporation of America purchased the Boise Pulp and Paper Mill in Wallula. The mill is the seventh-largest employer in the county and pays 3 percent of all the property taxes collected in the county.
In January, a small delegation of Port and city of Walla Walla officials traveled to Lake Forest, Ill., to meet with the chief executive officer of PCA. Our message was simple and direct. We value the economic benefits of the Wallula mill and appreciate PCA’s willingness to purchase the mill and reinvest in it.
The CEO was very engaging and genuinely appreciative that we traveled to meet with him. I do not believe there are many communities in which PCA owns plants that have taken the opportunity to say thank you.
Last week, the CEO was at the Wallula mill and in appreciation of our earlier outreach efforts invited us to join him for lunch. The CEO is optimistic on the mill’s future and announced that $8 million is going to be reinvested in the mill.
One of the Port’s more recent business retention efforts has been Martin Archery.
In an effort to save jobs and retain bow manufacturing operations, the Port purchased the Martin Archery property for $1.3 million. The Port then leased the facilities to a new company called Martin Sports, Inc., which owns the bow manufacturing equipment and has focused on returning the business to profitability.
When the Port became involved, the outlook for saving Martin Archery was dim. There were only 20 jobs remaining. Today, Martin Sports, Inc. employs 45 and is looking to expand the business.
The Port and Washington State Penitentiary Community Task Force have also played an instrumental role in saving jobs at the Washington State Penitentiary.
The new medium security units recently constructed will save jobs as the old main units are eventually transitioned out of use.
Sen. Mike Hewitt and Reps. Maureen Walsh and Terry Nealey have also been very helpful.
The other business retention success story has been the retention of Alaska Airlines.
The Port along with the Chamber of Commerce’s Air Travel Coalition recognized that the airline was resolute that every market it serves has to be profitable. Walla Walla was no exception.
Not all communities believed this and assumed that if Alaska Airlines was profitable overall their market would be fine. Those communities no longer have air service.
The Port reduced Alaska’s operating expenses at the Walla Walla Regional Airport and helped with providing the local cash match to a $250,000 federal air service marketing grant.
Alaska Airlines boardings have increased to the point the Walla Walla market is profitable.
Recently, a senior vice president of Alaska Airlines sent the Port an email that said in part, “Walla Walla is the role model for how a community preserves air service”.
The Port Commission will continue to make business retention a priority. However, like any public or private business there are limits on resources and time. This necessitates the Port focusing its efforts on those businesses that would have the most negative impact if they closed.
In some cases the Port will not be able to help. In circumstances where the Port can help, we are not always going to be successful.
However, as the above stories illustrate there are times we can make a difference. Not trying at all because the risk is too great would be disservice to the communities we serve.
Ron Dunning is the current president of the Port Commission. He has served on the Port Commission since 2010. He is the owner of Dunning Irrigation, co-owner of Touchet Seed & Energy and 51 East Main, a downtown Walla Walla commercial property.