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Voters elect Kelly as new Port of Walla Walla commissioner

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Kip Kelly congratulates Ted Koehler

Kip Kelly, left, and Ted Koehler share congratulations in the Walla Walla County Courthouse after the early election returns Tuesday night. Kelly has unseated incumbent Peter Swant for Port of Walla Walla commissioner, and Koehler is leading in his race for the East Ward seat on Walla Walla City Council. Cathy Koehler, center, looks on.

A retired Coffey Communications executive and instrument-rated pilot will be the next Port of Walla Walla District 1 commissioner.

Kip Kelly, 64, received about 66% of the votes, unseating incumbent Peter Swant for the next six-year term, according to preliminary numbers Tuesday.

The unofficial tally from the Walla Walla County Elections Department had Kelly with 4,465 of the 6,719 counted votes, compared to Swant's 2,216 votes.

Total votes counted in the election were 7,424, with nearly 2,500 left to tally. Ballots postmarked by Nov. 5 will also make their way to elections staff. However, nearly all of the remaining ballots would have to include the Port race and be in favor of Swant to change the outcome of the election.

"Obviously the voters showed they thought they needed a change," Swant said of the results this morning.

He said he will work to ensure a smooth transition as he completes his term over the next two months. He also intends to continue to work on behalf of tech recruitment and affordable child care — two initiatives Swant maintained through his campaign as necessary to improve the diversification of the economy and retention and recruitment of the labor force.

Kelly said those are two takeaways for him from Swant's campaign that may carry into Kelly's first six-year term for the economic development agency starting Jan. 1.

"I'm certainly on board with pursuing other opportunities in tech," he said.

Child care constraints coupled with housing affordability directly impacts job retention and recruitment, he acknowledged.

"So the Port needs to be involved or engaged with others in solutions," he said.

Kelly will represent the district that generally includes more than half of the city of Walla Walla down to the state line.

That area has been represented by Swant for a single term. The realtor/broker, whose business acumen also includes nearly three decades in his family's former grocery operation, ran unopposed in 2013 for the seat vacated by incumbent Paul Schneidmiller.

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.

"I'm very pleased with the results and want to thank Peter for his service to the Port," Kelly said. "I'm taking the numbers as validation that my message has resonated with county residents. Now it's time to deliver on the message."

Kelly said he plans to spend the next two months meeting with commissioners Mike Fredrickson and Ron Dunning to learn more about their 2020 priorities.

He also wants to meet with Port staff to "better understand their typical workdays," including how they spend the bulk of their time, any barriers to productivity, and more. He also plans to continue the conversations he's started with the business community.

Kelly, who retired from health care communications firm Coffey Communications in July, has said he intends to give the position his full-time attention.

Among his priorities, he has included updates to the design and content of the Port's website and the implementation of a multi-channel communications plan.

He also said he wants his term to be defined by more active engagement with commercial carrier Alaska Airlines to increase frequency of service and shape the schedule for optimal value, re-establish a robust general aviation component at the Walla Walla Regional Airport, establish a systematic approach to targeting and recruiting businesses to the community, and explore the feasibility of a tech or innovation incubator similar to the Port's wine incubator model.

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.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.