Job creation part of ports’ mission

Posted: Sunday, October 14, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 12:01 am, Sun Oct 14, 2012.

By ELAINE WILLIAMS of the Tribune | 0 comments

The Port of Lewiston’s most obvious success in the last five years has become part of the city’s skyline.

Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories’ new plant at the port’s Business and Technology Park – overlooking the city and next to the shopping complex that includes Home Depot and Safeway – manufactures the same products as SEL’s Pullman headquarters.

The expansion of the company, which develops high-tech equipment for electrical power delivery, is the most high-profile example of job generation at the port, said port Manager David Doeringsfeld.

A lesser-known company, Seekins Precision, started with fewer than five employees, making scope rings for rifles, Doeringsfeld said. It now produces an upper-end rifle and is running two shifts in a North Lewiston property owned by the port.

The two businesses came to the port because it had real estate available, not because of its connection to the river. Ports are some of the most powerful engines for job creation in the region since they collect property taxes.

In recent years the Port of Lewiston, the Port of Whitman County and the Port of Clarkston have been using much of that muscle on dry land at enterprises that don’t depend on river transportation.

High-tech services and manufacturing accounted for 86 percent of the 2,414 jobs at the Port of Whitman in 2011 compared with 33 percent in 1996. The 1,770 employees at SEL at that time represented the largest share of the positions in that category.

The company owns its land and buildings at the port’s Pullman Industrial Park.

Some Port of Whitman jobs are still linked with the river. Grain handling and storage, transportation, recreation and agriculture were at 7 percent, compared with 35 percent in 1996 at the Port of Whitman County.

The Port of Lewiston and the Port of Clarkston don’t maintain job statistics, but their managers believe they are experiencing similar trends.

The port doesn’t really control what kind of businesses it attracts, said Debbie Snell, properties and development manager at the Port of Whitman. Its role is to provide land or buildings to companies that are ready to grow.

SEL has been successful because of the vision of its founder and employees, Snell said. “We’re a very small part of a very big process. We just provided some infrastructure at the beginning.”

Swift Transportation is the largest tenant at the Port of Lewiston, employing about 500 here. The trucking company transports products for Clearwater Paper and takes peas and lentils from area elevators to the port before they’re placed on container barges. That accounts for 16 positions.

The majority of the remainder of the jobs involve hauling goods for retailers like Walmart, said Marty Gibbs, area sales manager for Swift.

Focusing, however, just on jobs on port properties doesn’t paint an accurate picture of the river’s importance, Doeringsfeld said.

Every agricultural job in the region is subsidized by the river, Doeringsfeld said. The inexpensive transportation cost of barging grain to Portland instead of sending it by truck or train boosts the profit margin of farms in southeastern Washington and north central Idaho.

That money gets spent every where from farm implement dealers to Macy’s, Doeringsfeld said.

And in the future the water highway could be responsible for even more jobs, Doeringsfeld said. “Who’s to say what that snapshot will look like five years from now?”

And while many port tenants don’t depend on barges to get their product to consumers, available land along the water is scarce.

The Port of Whitman has only one vacant river lot for industrial development – at the Port of Central Ferry – and even that is encumbered by a right of first refusal agreement, Snell said.

The Port of Lewiston has just two spaces. One is 11 acres near the Washington border that sits over a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ landfill, a circumstance that limits its development. One potential use is as a recreational vehicle park.

The other is 17 acres just east of the Lewis Clark Terminal, Doeringsfeld said. “This is the last piece of waterfront property in Idaho that’s accessible by barge that you can put an industrial facility on.”

Williams may be contacted at [email protected] or (208) 848-2261.

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