By Kristi Pihl, December 8, 2013, Tri-City Herald
For the past 12 years, Gene Wagner’s decisions have helped steer the Port of Kennewick’s economic development efforts.
During his time as port commissioner, he has said yes to projects that have led to 800 direct jobs and almost 500,000 square feet of commercial and industrial buildings worth more than $50 million.
But Wagner, 73, also has listened to his gut and said no to deals that may not have been in the best interests of all the port’s residents.
Wagner is retiring from the port at the end of the year. He lost a re-election bid to former Kennewick City Councilman Tom Moak in the November election.
The community is invited to an open house in honor of Wagner from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Clover Island Inn, 435 Clover Island Drive, Kennewick.
Wagner is an ordinary guy who has done much, said Skip Novakovich, the Port of Kennewick’s commission president. He is the type to welcome new people and mentor, befriend and coach them.
“With Gene, there are no strangers, just friends he hasn’t met yet,” said Larry Peterson, the port’s director of planning and development. Wagner has spent most of his life in the Tri-Cities. His family moved to the area when his father got a job with Hanford Patrol during the 1940s. They soon moved to Kennewick.
Before he was elected to the port seat, Wagner was one of the stars of the Tri-City Raceway, known as Gentleman Gene and the Candy Man.
West Richland Mayor-elect Brent Gerry said after stock car races, Wagner would spend as much time as any kid wanted signing autographs and chatting. And he always had a big brown grocery sack for the fans.
Wagner, who taught automotive classes at Columbia Basin College, said he was involved in racing since he got his driver’s license in 1956. He raced stock cars, motorcycles and go-carts.
Years ago, he donated about 37 first-place trophies and many others to the local Boy Scouts from his time racing.
He and his wife, Vickie, then got into boating, which is what got him interested in serving as port commissioner.
Wagner didn’t want to spend the kind of money it would take to make Clover Island larger, said Tim Arntzen, the port’s executive director, who has worked with Wagner for about 11 years.
Port staff estimated at that time that it would cost about $19 million to use fill material to enlarge the island, according to Herald archives. Instead, Wagner and other commissioners wanted to see a measured development, Arntzen said.
“He was looking out for government waste,” Arntzen said. But that didn’t mean Wagner wasn’t willing to support projects that had value to the Tri-Cities.
How business dealings would affect the people served by the port was something Wagner has always taken into consideration when making decisions, Arntzen said. Accountability was vital to him.
His idea was to make the most of what the community had at Clover Island, while insisting on quality, Peterson said.
Now, the Clover Island Marina is one of the port properties that brings in more money than it spends, Arntzen said.
That same “make the most” attitude led Wagner to become one of the early supporters of buying property along Kennewick’s Columbia Drive for redevelopment, Peterson said. The port plans to start remodeling two buildings in the area next year.
Wagner was in on the formative stages of Spaulding Business Park in Richland, now one of the port’s success stories, with only a single lot left.
Peterson recalls Wagner as the one who noticed the for sale sign on the former Tri-City Raceway property near West Richland.
“He’s been one of West Richland’s best champions, always reminding us its the Quad-Cities,” Peterson said.
The Tri-City Raceway, now planned to be a wine-related development, represents a potential economic benefit for the Tri-Cities, Gerry said. West Richland is working on including the land in its urban growth area, and also on plans to build a wine effluent treatment facility.
Wagner’s priority has always been the majority of the Port of Kennewick residents, Gerry said. He’s been “a good steward of the taxpayers’ money.”
Wagner said he’s taken pride when he saw projects come to fruition.
“We’ve had a lot of small, medium and big hits,” he said, crediting the planning skills of Arntzen and Peterson.
Wagner said he will miss being part of the Vista Field Airport redevelopment efforts. He and the other commissioners decided earlier this year to close the small Kennewick airport in favor of a development with a mix of commercial, retail, office space and residential.
Wagner repeatedly questioned the viability of Vista Field Airport, Arntzen said. Although he voted in 2010 to keep the airport open, he read a statement into the record expressing a need for commitment from airport users to make the airport work.
Wagner said he’s leaving the Port of Kennewick in good hands — that of Arntzen and the current staff and commissioners. He says hiring Arntzen was one of the best decisions he made for the port.
He still plans to take an interest in the port, along with spending time with his family, including his two children and six grandchildren.