On September 26, 1986, the first three Port of Chehalis commissioners (Bill Brooks, Ed Pemerl, and Bill Wiester) are sworn in. The new port district within Lewis County follows the same boundaries as the Chehalis School District, and was approved by voters within the district on September 16, 1986, under the recently passed law that allowed port districts in regions within counties, instead of only countywide. At least two previous attempts to create a Lewis County Port District had been defeated at the polls. The Port of Chehalis will go on to acquire and manage industrial land, focusing on economic development in the area by preparing sites and recruiting businesses to locate there. They will succeed in bringing thousands of jobs to this rural, independent-minded community.
Settling Saunders Bottom
Before non-Native settlers arrived in the Chehalis Valley, the Cowlitz Indians lived in the area, although there is no evidence of a permanent settlement there. The Indians used the Chehalis River for canoe travel and relied on a trail that runs along present-day Route 12. The first non-Indian settlers, Schuyler and Eliza Saunders, arrived in 1850. The valley quickly became notorious among the new settlers for its soggy conditions, earning the nickname “Saunders Bottom.”
Nonetheless, settlers continued to arrive, attracted to the abundant timber resources and the lush prairielands perfectly suited for farming. In 1873, the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, connecting the small community to markets on Puget Sound and on the Columbia River. The town of Chehalis incorporated in 1883 and continued to prosper with farming and the timber industry. In the years following World War II, both supply and demand for lumber became depleted and, especially after the Chehalis shingle mill burned down in 1953 and relocated to nearby Winlock, jobs were scarce.
Industry Rolls in with Rubber Tires
In 1956, a group of business people formed the Chehalis Industrial Commission with the intent to increase business and job opportunities in their community. The Chehalis Industrial Commission purchased land near Interstate 5 in 1956 and, in an effort to entice Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. to locate its tread rubber factory there, recruited volunteers to spend their weekends laying 3,500 feet of rail to connect the site to the main railroad line. The effort was successful in attracting the Goodyear factory, and set a precedent of citizens chipping for the greater economic good. Although the Port of Chehalis was not yet established, the Industrial Commission functioned like a private port, acquiring and managing land and drumming up business.
In 1960, voters rejected a proposal, which required countywide approval, to create a Lewis County Port District. According to Gail Shaw, member of the Industrial Commission, early efforts to create a port district were defeated because many Lewis County residents were directly descended from homesteaders, and retained an independent attitude that hesitated to authorize further taxation and government control.
The Port Comes to Pass
Persistent low levels of employment in Lewis County inspired Dan Godat, resident of Evaline, a small town just outside of Winlock, to lead an effort to allow public port districts in regions within counties. After persuading the Winlock City Council to adopt a resolution asking the state legislature for such an amendment, Godat then took the resolution to State Representative J. Vander Stoep (R-Chehalis), who successfully ushered the bill through the House and on to Senator Stu Halsan (D-Centralia), who pushed it though the Senate. On March 11, 1986 Substitute House Bill 1804 was approved by 54 to 4 votes.
Bill 1804 opened a two and a half year window for areas within counties to form a public port district if the area had an assessed value of at least $180 million. The law became effective on June 11, 1986, and was set to expire on December 31, 1988. These ports would have the authority to levy taxes of up to 45 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, and to levy an additional 45 cents for six-year periods to help on special projects. At this point, Lewis County was one of seven counties in Washington state without public port districts, along with Kittitas, Okanogan, Ferry, Stevens, Lincoln, and Spokane. Three regions in Lewis county soon began gathering the necessary signatures to form a port: Chehalis, Centralia, and Winlock/Toledo.
Residents in the Chehalis School District gathered the 200 required signatures to put a proposal on the September 16 ballot. The voters of the Chehalis School District narrowly approved a port, with 1,426 votes for and 1,352 votes against. Centralia also formed a port district, but Winlock/Toledo was defeated, perhaps because, as suggested by Gail Shaw, the Winlock/Toledo district was more rural and had suffered less economic stagnation.
The Port of Chehalis elected three commissioners on September 16: Bill Brooks, Ed Pemerl, and Bill Wiester, each of whom were sworn in on September 26 to serve six-year terms.
If You Build it They Will Come
The Port of Chehalis began collecting taxes in 1988, after a short delay due to a glitch in state law that requires taxing districts to establish their boundaries by March 1 to collect taxes in April of the following year.
Port officials developed partnerships with many local public and private entities in an effort to develop business opportunities. As the Port of Chehalis was establishing itself, there was discussion about taking over the Chehalis-Centralia airport , but since it was thriving under city governance, and was able to financially sustain itself, it did not join the port district.
In 1992, the Port hired its first employee, Heidi Pehl, as Executive Director. By 1993, the Port had acquired 160 acres of undeveloped industrial property. Infrastructural improvements to the undeveloped land, including roads, sewer lines, telephone lines, and electricity, cost approximately $1.9 million and were finished in 1995. That year, Fred Meyer Retail Service Center became the first tenant, occupying a 310,000-square-foot distribution center. The second tenant, Circuit City Stores, Inc, followed soon after. The Port was up and running.
Upping the Game
As the Port continued developing tenants on its land, a new opportunity arose. In 1996, Weyerhaeuser wanted to sell one of its former pole yards in Chehalis, along with the rail line that connected it to the main railroad. The Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum had been operating historic steam engine train rides on this stretch of rail but could not afford to purchase the railroad outright from Weyerhaeuser. The Port of Chehalis stepped in to help and received a $420,000 grant from the Department of Transportation to go toward the purchase of this historic railroad line. The Port also purchased and annexed a 40-acre parcel from Weyerhaeuser at the end of the line, which became the Curtis Industrial Park. The Chehalis-Centralia Railroad and Museum currently rents the stretch of railroad from the port for $1 per day, and covers the cost of upkeep. This is an example of the community ethos and of the port’s participation in public/private partnerships.
In 1996, the U.S. Department of Commerce designated the South Puget Sound Foreign Trade Zone, including sites in Thurston County, Kitsap County, Mason County, and Lewis County, where the Port of Chehalis and the Port of Centralia were included. The Port of Olympia acted as the lead in applying for the designation, meant to make the area more desirable for businesses. This zone is one of about 200 in the country, and allows businesses within it to pay reduced import and export duties, increasing their competitiveness.
In 1999, after 13 years as a commissioner of the Port of Chehalis, Ed Pemerl retired from his position and was designated the “Founding Father” of the Port of Chehalis by the Port Commission, the Chehalis City Council, and the Lewis County Commission. In 2000 the Port of Chehalis nominated him for the WPPA’s “Outstanding Service to the Industry Award.” Pemerl was active in establishing the port district and in building Maurin Road, a road across the Chehalis valley that allowed increased development and jobs in the area.
Ghost of Saunder’s Bottom
The Port of Chehalis has been successful at attracting new businesses to the area, but it has also been forced to reckon with conditions encountered by settlers more than 150 years ago -- the sogginess. The Department of Ecology’s Best Management Practices for Stormwater Management help guide environmental efforts, and the Port collaborated with Circuit City to construct a stormwater retention pond that is also a wetland feature in the park and has served as a regional model.
Scattered across the Port’s property are about 125 acres of wetlands, which elongates the permitting process and oftentimes necessitates mitigation. In its efforts to provide “shovel ready” property for future development, the Port has been in negotiations with state and federal agencies to provide mitigation in advance of recruiting tenants, in order to reduce permitting delays at the time of actual development. In 2008, the Port of Chehalis received a $1 million grant to go toward this project, and it began work on a 66-acre stage-two wetland park in the Pleasant Valley west of Chehalis, south of state Route 6. The Port is currently awaiting approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Usually mitigation happens on a case-by-case basis, adding years to the permitting process, but if the Army Corps of Engineers approves the project, new business development permits would take two or three months instead of two or three years. This streamlined process will help the Port of Chehalis market itself to businesses, and also provide a legitimate wetland nearby. This is the first instance of advance mitigation in Washington state and has involved many different agencies looking for mutually beneficial solutions.
The Port of Chehalis is also currently working with local cities, counties, and the Industrial Commission to challenge the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) flood maps released in January 2010. The preliminary version of the flood map would limit activities on about 40 acres of the Port’s property near the Boistfort Valley. This work group is in the midst of negotiations and attempting to rework the boundaries of the floodplains to have a less detrimental effect on business in the area.
Ready for the Future
Despite suffering from the 2008 economic slump and recent environmental challenges, the Port of Chehalis continues to prepare sites for future development. The 2007 completion of the LaBree Road and interchange on Interstate 5 increased capacity for Port traffic and provides more central access to Port properties. Current Executive Director Jim Rothlin is planning ahead to provide enough infrastructure for the next 20 years of growth.
In 2011, the Port of Chehalis manages more than 1,057 acres of land -- 357 acres in the Curtis Industrial Park and another 700 plus in the Chehalis Industrial Park. The industrial parks currently include 50 businesses employing more than 2,500 workers, and the Port continues to work side by side with the Industrial Commission to provide new sites for development. Chehalis is in an ideal location on the I-5 corridor, centrally located between Seattle and Portland, with access to the railroad and the Chehalis-Centralia Airport. It is situated only 45 minutes north of Port of Longview, which offers marine shipping and barge shipping up the Columbia River. Port of Tacoma's shipping dock is 50 minutes away.
The Port of Chehalis continues to enrich the economy of Lewis County, in accordance with its mission: “The Port of Chehalis will be a catalyst for economic growth and diversification by recruiting new business and industry and supporting the retention and expansion of existing ones” (Comprehensive Plan, 2006).