A challenge for the District 1 Port of Walla Walla Commission seat pits incumbent Peter Swant against challenger Kip Kelly.
Swant, 64, is a Realtor/broker who ran unopposed in his first bid for the seat in 2013. Kelly, 64, recently retired as senior vice president of business development for healthcare communications firm Coffey Communications after 36 years, and seeks his first run at public office.
Kelly was the clear winner in the primary election with about 47% of the votes cast in his favor. Swant advanced to the General Election with 28% of the votes, about 91 ahead of challenger Beth (Brotherton) Swanson.
That primary was decided by voters within the District 1 boundaries, which generally include more than half of the city of Walla Walla down to the state line.
For the general election, all registered county voters will get a say in the decision.
Founded in 1952, the Port of Walla Walla is the operator of the Walla Walla Regional Airport and the county’s lead economic development agency with a mission to create and retain family-wage jobs, expand the area’s tax base, maintain multi-modal transportation linkages and provide leadership in enhancing the county’s overall economic vitality and quality of life.
Port commissioners receive a salary of $750 a month. They also receive $114 per day in compensation for each day spent attending meetings or performing service on behalf of the Port, up to $10,944 per year.
Swant and Kelly, who were high school classmates, are both deeply rooted in the business community.
Swant is a realtor/broker at Windermere Walla Walla and spent nearly 30 years working in his family grocery store business, Wade’s Red Apple Market, before that.
He has touted the recruitment of tech firm Ingeniux and the continued development of the Burbank Business Park among Port accomplishments during his term. The redevelopment of the former Crown Cork & Seal building into a subdivided warehouse for numerous expanding businesses is another, he said.
Among his chief concerns, however, is an issue that impacts economic development in a different way. Swant said he wants his next term punctuated by a deep focus on helping solve child care challenges in the community.
With very few infant spots available at child care centers, largely with costs to high for operators to break even in providing the service, child care becomes a prohibitive factor in the recruitment and retention of quality employees.
“I feel very strongly about affordable child care programs in Walla Walla,” Swant said.
“A lot of people can’t afford to pay what a lot of centers charge, and a lot of them are full.”
The fix is not clear. Swant bristled at the notion of child care being subsidized by the Port. He said the organization could facilitate creative thinking that could put local companies at the head of helping solve the problem.
“Entities could put money in,” he said.
Swant said the experience he’s gained from already serving a term better positions him to hit the ground running in 2020.
“The Port is a somewhat complicated organization. It’s a long process of learning how everything works, and I’m past that,” he said.
“I’m going to give the experience this position needs and, I think, most people want.”
Kelly, an instrument-rated pilot whose work for Coffey has taken him all over the country, said he has perspective to help lobby for commercial aviation and general aviation growth, in addition to recruiting companies that rely on national sales and can use the perspective of someone who’s succeeded at it while based in Walla Walla.
“I’ve spent a lifetime preparing myself through experiences and relationships to get to a point in my life where I think I can make a difference,” Kelly said.
“The key to being a good salesman is having a good product to sell, and Coffey gave me that. Walla Walla gives me that, too.”
Kelly has a list of to-dos he’d like to accomplish for the Port. The most short-term is an update of the design and content of the organization’s website and implementation of a multi-channel communications plan.
His also wants a more systematic, coordinated system to research, target and recruit businesses that make sense for the community, rather than remain in a “reactive” position as leads from the state and other sources come to the agency.
Through his campaign he has reached out to numerous public officials and agencies, as well as different companies, to try to learn more about possibilities for the community.
Among the latter: Costco. He’s also reached out to Pullman’s Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories to inquire about possible expansion.
Costco, he said, is not likely to make a move to Walla Walla, though he wouldn’t be surprised to see a second one in the Tri-Cities as retailers build their siting around larger populations of a base 150,000 people. Nevertheless, you don’t know if you don’t ask, Kelly said.
“I’m going to make ‘em tell me ‘no,’” he said.
Kelly said he has had front-porch conversations at more than 1,700 homes through the campaign. He has been surprised by the vast number of people who support growth.
It “has to mesh with the fabric of the community,” he said. As manufacturing, warehousing and other industries fit into the Burbank Business Park model, he said the Port should also focus on white-collar industries such as tech for infill in the city. He said the incubator model that has been successful at the Airport District for wine would be a good start. It also might be a place where students from the three colleges could begin exploring ideas that turn into enterprise.
Kelly said efforts to re-establish a more robust general aviation operation could bolster the Walla Walla Regional Airport.
Trouble finding a fixed-based operator, which has since been filled, left the building locked for an extensive period to those flying themselves in on everything from small personal aircraft to leer jets.
Now that an operator is on the ground, Kelly said investment from the Port in simply paving stalls would go a long way to serving the general aviation market.
“The terminal shows beautifully as a portal to aviation,” he said. “But it’s still dust, mud or ice if you’re coming in for general aviation.”
On the side of commercial aviation efforts, Swant and Kelly had different takes.
Kelly has served on the community Air Travel Coalition that engages commercial carrier Alaska Airlines around local traffic, load factors and flight schedules. The group meets at least annually with the airline, but Kelly said it’s not enough.
“Our meetings efforts are too infrequent and sporadic, and I’d like to formalize that,” he said.
The danger in not having more communication in a company with turnover is that it’s too easy to lose ground when Walla Walla competes to retain local air travel with an airport just an hour’s drive away.
Last March, for instance, he said air fare had gotten to the point where a flight from Walla Walla to Seattle had been priced $86 more than from Pasco. It was a detail coalition members needed to explain to the airline as a way to keep costs in line and not harm the local market.
“Were the smallest market in their airline,” he said. “If we don’t squeak we’re going to get lost.”
Another example came recently when the airline made plans to reduce the flight schedule to two daily flights starting in January. The number of flights wasn’t alarming. But the time of the final incoming flight was, Kelly said. The final flight of the day is slated to touch down here at 12:13 a.m. That means day travelers who take the early flight will have a 5 a.m. outbound flight here and, to have a full day’s meetings, will have to return on the 11:15 p.m. flight from Seattle.
Kelly discovered the change when he was booking his own flight in January. He called the airline to point out that because of the time of year, when air travel is at least 45 percent local, more people here would likely opt to drive all the way to Seattle or to Pasco to fly instead. The change could not be undone entirely, but airline officials left that schedule at only six weeks as a result.
Swant said air travel continues to be a difficult and moving target. He said the schedules and offerings are driven by Alaska’s bottom line, and he isn’t convinced more communication will change that.
“I don’t think if we had four or five meetings a year it would have an impact,” Swant said.
He said more flights are needed, but those perhaps could come from another airline entirely.