On September 9, 1952, Walla Walla County voters approve the formation of a public port district, the Port of Walla Walla, to advance industrial and economic development in the county. With broad authority under Washington state law, the Port of Walla Walla will be shaped by public and private interests and will fulfill its mission by developing and operating marine facilities, industrial and agricultural facilities, and airport and rail facilities. The Port, which will become an important economic development organization within the state, will attract new businesses to Walla Walla County and expand the local economy.
The Port Movement
By 1889, when Washington joined the Union, the ancient dependence on water for sustenance and navigation had led to numerous settlements along major waterways within the state. The new state’s constitution established state control over navigable waters within its borders, but, during the next two decades, private and public interests competed for control over access to waterfront areas. After several unsuccessful petitions, in 1911 the Washington State Legislature passed the Port District Act, an enabling act that permitted the establishment and governance of public port districts.
Washington’s first port, the Port of Seattle, was formed in 1911. Within a decade, 10 more ports were formed. Within the next 40 years, another two dozen ports were established. Initially, the legislature authorized port districts to provide maritime shipping and rail-water transfer facilities. Over time, the legislature expanded ports’ authority to include industrial development districts (1939), airports (1941), and economic development programs (1985). As population and industry within Washington grew and expanded, port districts were established statewide.
A Dam Port
In 1947, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers began construction of McNary Dam at the Umatilla Rapids on the Columbia River. It became immediately clear that most of the land classified for industrial use in western Walla Walla County would be flooded by the dam’s reservoir and that an ambitious replacement program was needed -- the sort of work appropriate for a port district. To ensure “maximum development of the McNary Dam Reservoir to benefit industry, agriculture, and transportation,” local leaders organized the Walla Walla County Port District Committee.
Representing the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce, the Walla Walla County Farm Bureau, and the Pomona Grange, the Walla Walla County Port District Committee worked to establish a port and in 1952 put the issue before voters. If the people of Walla Walla County did not act, supporters argued, development along the Columbia River would be taken up by the ports of Kennewick (established 1915), Pasco (established 1940), and Umatilla (also established in 1940). If the people did establish a port, then the county could hope for facilities to better ship wheat, its major crop, and other agricultural commodities. With most of the population and farmland far from a major waterway, transportation had been a challenge since the county seat, Walla Walla, had transitioned from a mining supply town to an agricultural center in the 1860s. With a port, Walla Wallans hoped to develop new agricultural and industrial facilities and to increase their economic and political influence in the region.
In September 1952 voters formed the Port of Walla Walla, by a 7-to-1 margin, and elected its first three commissioners: William D. Ray, a farm equipment dealer; William E. Vollmer, Waitsburg mayor and wheat rancher; and William E. Falconer, another wheat rancher. In 1953, as construction of McNary Dam was being completed, the dam’s 64-mile-long reservoir pool was created, and the Columbia River at Wallula became Lake Wallula, a waterway deep enough for the transfer of cargo and for industrial development.
The Port and the Pool
The Port of Walla Walla initially focused on acquiring land -- to lease, sell, and develop -- for industrial sites and facilities on the McNary Dam pool and along the Columbia and Snake rivers in the western part of the county. Within its first 15 years, the Port attracted a number of major corporations and operations, including: a Craik Lumber mill (1957); a Boise Cascade kraft mill and container plant (1958); a Cargill grain storage and transfer terminal (1958); a Columbia Basin Steel fabrication plant (1958); a Pennsalt Chemicals storage plant (1960); a Western Farmers Association grain storage and transfer terminal (1962); a G. W. Chemco chemical fertilizer plant (1962); a Boylan Navigation dock and repair yard (1962); an Albert-Dickinson alfalfa seed processing plant (1962); a Blue Mountain Reload timber cutting and shipment facility (1962); a Sun Glo food processing facility (1966); a Universal Feeds alfalfa hay pellet mill (1967); and an Atlantic Richfield Hanford 60,000-head cattle feed lot and meat packing plant (1968). Valued at $30 million at the time, these industrial plants significantly increased the county’s tax revenue and population.
The Port also pursued projects inland, acquiring industrial land from the Walla Walla City-County Airport in 1959 and attracting businesses such as a Husky Hi-Power Oil and Ro-Tile Manufacturing in 1962. But, beginning in the 1970s, the Port broadened its focus and began developing industrial parks and buildings in and around the city of Walla Walla.
The Port Turns Inland
In 1973, the Port constructed a manufacturing facility for Nelson Irrigation, which was expanded in 1977 and 1983. Over the next 20 years, inland port projects included facilities for Grab On Products (1981), Coca-Cola (1985), Strauser Manufacturing (1987), Key Technologies (1989), and Northwest Library Bindery (1993). Other major building projects included facilities for Broetje Orchards (1986) and Service Transport (1987).
In 1989, the Port took over from the city and county of Walla Walla ownership and operation of the 2,200-acre Walla Walla Regional Airport complex, and it began improving and expanding the airport facility and the adjacent industrial park. New operations attracted to the site included the McGregor Company (1990), the Washington State Department of Transportation (1994), the Walla Walla County Engineering Department (1994), and, in the 2000s, a number of wineries. In 2000, the Port built a new $10.5 million airport terminal.
In 1996, the Port assumed the role of economic development council, a mechanism that emerged in the 1970s to promote economic growth. Functioning as both a port and an economic development council, the Port could now provide a broad range of economic development services, including business recruitment and retention, infrastructure development, and small-business development. Also in 1996, the Port began widening Highway 12 from Walla Walla to Burbank. Other recent port projects include attracting Cliffstar Corporation to Walla Walla (2002) and a Railex produce distribution center to Wallula (2006), opening incubator buildings for start-up wineries (2006), and developing the port’s Burbank Industrial Park.
Today, according to Port of Walla Walla surveys, port-assisted businesses represent more than 20 percent of Walla Walla County’s total labor force, with a combined annual payroll exceeding $110 million. Moreover, five of the top 10 largest taxpayers in Walla Walla County are port-assisted businesses, and more than 15 percent of property taxes collected in the county come from port-assisted companies. The Port’s activities have diversified and broadened over the years. As with other ports in the state, the development of the Port of Walla Walla will continue to be shaped by the needs and interests of the community it serves.