Just five short years ago, our valley took the first steps toward what at the time was a radical paradigm shift: Beginning to look at this as a region rather than as a collection of cities and counties.
The first Wenatchee Valley TEDx conference was built around the theme of “connecting the dots” rather than continuing to operate in relative silos. It was Dr. Peter Rutherford who argued for a different mindset going forward.
And thanks to the work of the core team and facilitator of Our Valley Our Future, we are seeing organizations in this valley looking for ways to collaborate and cooperate by thinking regionally rather than considering narrow institutional interests.
The latest and a most impressive example of this kind of regional mindset can be found in the proposal to functionally merge the ports of Douglas and Chelan County. A group of civic leaders convened to consider the future of Pangborn Memorial Airport and the conundrum that it was facing — annual operational losses of more than $500,000 as well as millions of dollars short in funding expected capital needs over the next decade.
For years, the airport has been the source of acrimony between the two port districts. But attitudes have changed, and the ports are now looking to the future rather than the past, to the credit of the commissioners and their staffs.
It is not legally possible at present to have a consolidated regional port authority, but a functional consolidation would create a more financially viable as well as a regionally focused economic development organization.
The task force unanimously recommended the functional consolidation because the status quo is financially unsustainable and risks our valley’s long-term future.
Consolidation will mean reducing duplication; and a key part of the savings is that Douglas County Port Executive Director Lisa Parks has offered to step down if the consolidation goes forward. Lisa has been one of founders and most avid leaders in the Our Valley Our Future effort that has carried the banner for the collaborative mindset, so she’s walking her talk.
She told me with a smile that she never anticipated that her job might disappear, but she’s wholly supportive of the consolidation as the right thing for our valley.
Under the functional merger, Jim Kuntz will become head of a nonprofit regional port authority owned by the ports.
It appears that the merger will reduce costs by at least $700,000 annually, which more than solves the immediate operational deficit. Efficiencies are gained in reducing duplication in professional services, marketing and other areas.
Importantly, there will still be accountability. The port commissioners stay in place and the budget has to be approved by two Chelan County and two Douglas County commissioners.
Besides efficiencies, we anticipate that the port will be stronger and better able to pursue economic development. Chelan County’s fledgling small community partnerships would be expanded to both counties under the consolidation.
For the longer term, this valley will need to find a way to come up with matching funds for the $60 million in capital expenditures necessary to maintain the airport’s viability. That problem couldn’t be solved immediately.
As a region with a more efficient and focused consolidated port, we will need voters to support those needs if we want Pangborn to remain competitive. That will be solved down the road.
I tip my hat to the staff and commissioners of both ports for their willingness to consider this leap. This would be the first functional merger of port districts, but it won’t be the last.
The spirit of collaboration is gaining momentum and that will benefit us all.
Rufus Woods is the publisher emeritus of The Wenatchee World. Contact him at 665-1162 or email@example.com.