On September 16, 1986, voters in the Centralia School District approve creation of the Port of Centralia under a recently passed law that allows port districts to be created in regions within counties, instead of only countywide. At least two previous attempts to create a Lewis County Port District have been defeated at the polls. Three port commissioners are elected in the same vote: Bob Thompson, Art Lehman, and Gene Groshong. The Port of Centralia will focus on creating economic opportunities in the area by acquiring and improving industrial land and recruiting business tenants. Over the next three decades it will grow to include two industrial campuses and a mixed-use development, totaling more than 1,500 acres of land that are home to some 30 businesses employing more than 800 people.
The plains surrounding the Chehalis River were occupied by the Upper Chehalis Tribe, which maintained several villages in the area before non-Indian settlers arrived in 1845. Military Road, the first in the area, reached Centralia in 1857, connecting the community to Fort Vancouver and Puget Sound. In 1872, the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, bringing further opportunity for economic development and connections to the wider world.
The railroad ran through the property of George Washington (1817-1905), who had arrived in 1851 but, as a black man, had been technically prohibited from owning land in Oregon Territory until 1853. Washington took advantage of the railroad's placement, platting a town in 1875. The town, initially named Centerville, incorporated in 1886. By the early 1890s the population had grown to about 5,000. The economy revolved around the railroad and logging, which more or less carried the community until declining in the 1980s.
The Making of a Port
In response to this economic decline, business and civic leaders in Centralia and other Lewis County cities saw creation of a public port district as a means to promote and diversify the area's development, but they faced a problem. Lewis County voters had previously rejected creation of a countywide Port of Lewis County, and the law no longer allowed creation of smaller port districts.
For years, the Port District Act had allowed the formation of port districts that encompass only part of a county, and many Washington public ports are less than countywide, some quite small. However, in the 1970s the legislature had changed the law so that new port districts could only be created if they were countywide (later, a law enacted in 1992 would again allow the formation of less-than-countywide port districts, although only in counties that already had a non-countywide district).
In response to this dilemma, Dan Godat of Evaline, a small town just outside Winlock, to led an effort to again allow creation of public port districts comprising less than an entire county. After persuading the Winlock City Council to adopt a resolution supporting such an amendment, Godat took the resolution to State Representative J. Vander Stoep of Chehalis and Senator Stu Halsan of Centralia, who guided it through the legislature. Soon after the law took effect on June 11, 1986, public-port advocates in the Centralia, Chehalis, and Winlock/Toledo areas began gathering signatures to place measures creating three separate Lewis County ports on the election ballot.
On September 16, 1986, voters in the Centralia School District approved the formation of the Port of Centralia by a vote of 2,133 in favor and 1,661 against. Three commissioners were voted in: Bob Thompson, Art Lehman, and Gene Groshong. Chehalis voters approved a port district on the same date, but those in the Winlock/Toledo area rejected a port-district measure.
The Port of Centralia 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. In 1988 and 1989 the Port of Centralia began purchasing land on Galvin Road and initiated construction Port Park I. The Port worked in partnership with the Lewis County Economic Development Council and other local government agencies to market itself and attract new business opportunities. In 1990, Roger’s Machinery Company, Inc moved in, becoming the first Port tenant.
In 1994, the Port of Centralia received the Port of the Year Award from the Washington Public Ports Association. It was also included in the South Puget Sound Foreign Trade Zone, a U.S. Department of Commerce designation that includes sites in Thurston County, Kitsap County, Mason County, and Lewis County. The designation was meant to make the area more attractive to business by reducing import and export duties for businesses within the zone.
In 2003, the Port of Centralia announced the formation of its new Park II development. It received an $800,000 loan and a $200,000 grant from the Washington State Department of Community, Trade, and Economic Development for public improvements to the park. Centralia Sawmills Corporation was planning to build a lumber mill on the site and hire 94 full time workers, which left 200 acres available for further development.
The Port's location on the I-5 corridor, centrally located between Seattle and Portland, gave it a competitive advantage in offering industrial sites. By 2016, the Port of Centralia had "grown to comprise over 1,500 acres in 2 master-planned industrial campuses and 1 mixed-used development" (Port of Centralia website). The 30 businesses operating in its parks accounted for more than 800 jobs in the local economy.