Spokane Journal of Business

Legislative bills propose new port district options

Spokane, Kittitas counties could benefit from change

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Two bills introduced recently in the Washington state Legislature and sponsored partly by Spokane-area legislators would give Spokane County more options for creating a port district to help promote economic development here. 

One or the other of them, however, needs to be passed out of its respective chamber by next Tuesday, Feb. 18, to have a chance to become law this year.

The identical proposals, Senate Bill 6315 and House Bill 2547, would enable the forming of a new port district within a county, rather than requiring such a district to be countywide, says Rich Hadley, president and CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated. Current state law requires new port districts to be countywide when formed in counties that don’t have one. 

Only two counties in the state don’t have a port district, Spokane and Kittitas. The county seat of Kittitas County is Ellensburg.

The bills also would let proponents hold an initial public election solely on the issue of forming a district. If the ballot measure passed, voters then would select port district commissioners in a subsequent election, under the proposals. The current law calls for one public vote to consider both the port district concept and the commissioner positions.

As currently written, the new provisions for creating port districts would expire Dec. 31, 2020. As of earlier this week, initial legislative committees had approved both bills. 

A port district is a local taxing authority established to fund economic development and infrastructure that typically is centered on an industrial complex, an airport, or a marina. GSI, which has been exploring the concept as an economic development tool here, is working with the Kittitas County Chamber of Commerce to seek approval of the current legislative proposals.

Bill sponsors from the Spokane area included Democratic Reps. Timm Ormsby and Marcus Riccelli, Republican Rep. Kevin Parker; and Democratic Sen. Andy Billig. District 13 legislative sponsors representing Kittitas County included Sen. Janéa Holmquist Newbry, R-Moses Lake; Rep. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake; and Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg.

Hadley says that while GSI is supportive of the proposal allowing for a less-than-countywide district, it might still back a countywide proposed district, if that makes more sense after completing the review it has under way.

“We still have a task force that is doing the due diligence regarding a port district, and part of the due diligence is the rationale for these bills,” Hadley says. “If the determination is to do a more site-specific or regional-specific port that’s less than countywide, we’d have that ability to do that.”

A smaller district here might include one in the West Plains to bolster the aerospace sector, or a district in East Spokane to include areas of Hillyard and North Spokane Corridor industrial areas, he says.

GSI and its economic development counterparts in Kittitas County sought help drafting the bills from the Olympia-based Washington Public Ports Association, which was formed by the Legislature in 1961 and works to support port districts in the state through government relations, education, and advocacy.

Eric D. Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association, says Spokane is the largest city in the state that doesn’t have a port district. 

Other big cities in the state have smaller districts that were created when a previous state law enabled them, he adds.

Johnson says, “There are a number of less-than-countywide ports in the state, but the law authorizing that expired over 20 years ago.”

He says a total of 75 port districts operate in Washington state. 

“Many communities around the state use their port districts very successfully to create jobs,” Johnson says.

He adds, “They invest in job-creating infrastructure, buildings, airport infrastructure. In Spokane, you don’t have a seaport, but it’s usually industrial infrastructure that attracts private sector development.” 

Hadley doesn’t expect GSI to push for a port district ballot measure this year. Nearly three decades ago, voters rejected an initiative here to form a port district.

Treva Lind
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