It's time to terminate the marine terminal

A look at alternative uses for Olympia’s Port Peninsula


If you owned a parcel of land worth well over $40 million, plus millions more in infrastructure, buildings, equipment and several thousand feet of no-bank waterfront with unimpeded views of an inland sea and snowcapped mountains, what return would you expect from your property?

What rents would you need to cover maintenance, depreciation, insurance, taxes, fees assessments, administration and incidentals?  Would three-tenths of one percent be a reasonable return?

“Absurd!” you might say, but not what the Port of Olympia (the Port) Marine Terminal supporters say. They continue with the charade that it’s an economic engine that drives our economy as it once did a very long time ago.

Back then, the Port was home to well over a thousand good jobs, but the businesses that created those jobs have vanished. Gone are the thirty sawmills, the five shingle mills, the veneer factory, the plywood factory, the cannery, the shipbuilders and the like.

And the maritime industry has long since outgrown the Port. It’s a relic of the past that only supports about 150 full-time jobs. It’s a dinosaur that suffers from the same malady that shuttered the Olympia Brewery in 2003 … obsolescence. Modern cargo ships are much too big for our port, known in the maritime business as a ‘Weekend Port’ which in maritime lingo translates as ‘outdated or small potatoes.’

Isn’t it time to rethink how we use our Port Peninsula? Isn’t it time to imagine what it could become, to look to the future, not the past? Isn’t it time to write Finis to the Port’s log dump, heavy equipment, trucks and out-sized carbon footprint … not to mention the environmental degradation of the Peninsula and Budd Inlet?

Isn’t it time to take down the Port’s no trespassing signs and open up its priceless 60 acres to the families and taxpayers of Thurston County? Isn’t it time to make it a place of parks and boating and apartments and boutiques and shopping and cafes and special events with a background provided by unimpeded views of Budd Inlet reaching out to the jagged white details of the Olympic Mountains?

Isn’t it time to weigh the Peninsula’s current uses against possible alternatives … to look at the opportunity costs of each?

Opportunity cost

Opportunity cost is an important way to look at investments. It’s a method that measures the disparity between investment options. To illustrate, if you deposited $10,000 in a savings account bearing interest at two percent, your investment would increase by $150 after a full year.

However, had you placed your money in a mutual fund that had increased ten percent, your investment would have appreciated by $1,000. The difference between the two investments ($850) is what’s called your ’opportunity cost’ … the amount you made versus the amount you could have made with an alternative investment.

The citizens of Thurston County should look at the opportunity cost of perpetuating a maritime operation surrounding a pile of logs that loses millions of tax dollars per year (despite accounting tricks that make it look like a profit of $150,000) versus doing something different.

You’d have to be a Luddite to fail to understand that the times have changed, and the Port must change with them. You’d have to be blind not to see the potential of our sixty-acre peninsula at the headwaters of Puget Sound … one of Puget Sound’s treasures.

And you’d have to have your head stuck in the sand if you think that without the Marine Terminal the Peninsula would sit neglected with For Lease signs stuck on it.

During the phase-out of the Port’s commercial maritime activities, the New Peninsula would logically start to the north from Farmer’s Market and to the south from the iconic KGY Studios.

And if the Port and the City of Olympia worked as a team, they could create ecologically responsible and community-friendly zoning guided by the latest urban thinking to create a sustainable, attractive, job-rich neighborhood.

And there’s an overlooked loss to consider in the Port’s opportunity cost equation … the devastation of downtown Olympia’s retail businesses.

When the Port was job-rich, downtown was retail-rich. Today vacant storefronts line its streets. Low-rent tenants, such as second-hand shops and tattoo parlors, populate an out-sized slice of its shopkeeper roster. It’s become a retail ghost town … a decline that followed the Port’s loss of jobs and continues despite decades of desperate, costly efforts of ‘revitalize’ it.

While nobody wants to bring industrial activities back to the Peninsula, populating the Port with people, recreation, apartments, boutiques and the like would create new jobs. This would not only bring life to the Peninsula, but by creating jobs in the area, it would also rescue downtown’s retail life.

It could happen. The Port of Olympia Commissioners have it within their legal authority to do so … and it’s been done with astonishing success by our neighbor in British Columbia.

In the 1970s, Vancouver decided to bid adieu to the industrial use of a small island called Granville and welcome market activities. The similarities between their island and our port peninsula are striking.

  • They both share an industrial past.
  • They both dredged their surrounding waters and expanded their land mass with its fill from 1911 through 1915.
  • They both welcomed manufacturing industries in the early 1920s and prospered through a couple of world wars well into mid-century.

But when new economies, new methods of transportation and new ways of doing business changed old business models, the shared destinies of these two entities diverged.

Today, Granville Island, with half the land mass of the port peninsula, is alive with activity ... and prosperity. It boasts 275 businesses that employ more than 2,500 people. It generates more than $215 million in economic activity each year, and fills tax coffers.

It’s long past time for an honest reassessment of the true costs of maintaining our current operations at the Port’s Marine Terminal. It will never again be fit for maritime commercial traffic. Ships will not shrink in size, and manufacturers of outbound cargo, such as the sawmills, shipbuilders and other industries, will not locate to the Peninsula … ever.

The Marine Terminal is a relic and no longer an economic asset. It’s time to Terminate the Terminal, tear down its fences and create a future that creates jobs, enhances tax revenues and opens the Peninsula to all the people of Thurston County, both today and for generations to come.

Joe Illing is a longtime resident of Thurston County, business owner … and former journalist.

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily those of  The JOLT's staff or board of directors.  Got something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents? Send it to us and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.


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    As long as the city council is stuck figuring out taxing the people of Olympia with free tax base on delivery for developers and redoing Capital Mall removing parking, removing retail putting up 14 story buildings adding 10 times the population but not one more grocery stores, school new sidewalks for NW neighborhoods etc. etc? What a mess. Making the port a place for the people! One that would bring in money enough to build sidewalks and stay with what's right for the city, for Olympia long into 2045. It's never going to happen. They'll never see past their own ludite views. YET with a little VISION the port could be a successful and modern market center. Make the Capital MALL redo low density urban/retail/greenspace to match the neighborhoods that surround it and bring back the thought of USEABLE, PEOPLE CENTERED SPACE and let the Port be done with logging trucks, and outdated industry, loss of the most beautiful piece of property in the city, return it TO THE TAX PAYERS OF OLYMPIA. Tell the city council STOP looking for developer options on parking theory and start thinking about our beautiful city and making it better for ( say it with me now) FOR THE PEOPLE!

    Tuesday, June 20 Report this

  • BobJacobs

    Some of us have been saying this for years. But not nearly as well as Joe. Thanks,

    Bob Jacobs

    Tuesday, June 20 Report this

  • JulesJames

    I’m curious to know how terminating the Port’s maritime terminal would affect the local logging industry. If the Port of Grey’s Harbor could support local loggers reasonably well, re-zoning and selling off the peninsula makes sense. But the Port of Olympia pretending to be a free market developer of a planned community is the plan: No Thank You! They’d spend billions and make thousands.

    Tuesday, June 20 Report this

  • KatAshe

    I agree with the author that our port is obsolete.

    What I don’t agree with is the author’s ideas for redevelopment, in an area that will likely be under water, if only by a foot or two, within the next 30-50 years. In my personal opinion, it might be better to use for recreation, by increasing space for recreational boaters, parks and entertainment venues that when the time came wouldn’t have too much impact. Building apartments, boutiques, restaurants, sounds lovely until those living and working by the sound experience flooding for three years in a row, and then are leave abandoned to the sea.

    Tuesday, June 20 Report this

  • cascadian12

    I agree with you 1000%, and many other Olympia residents agree with you too. As someone interested in the future of Olympia's downtown, I've long imagined a different future for the area you describe (north of the Farmer's Market and south of KGY) - one that provides a waterfront experience for visitors and residents alike, celebrates the natural setting and unimpeded views of the bay and mountains, prioritizes environmental restoration (to complement and enhance the future removal of the dam on 5th Avenue), supports the boating community (one thing the Port has managed well, though visiting boaters that I've spoken with would really like a more lively and vibrant downtown to spend their "shore leave" in), brings open space to a downtown sorely lacking in it, and enhances cultural offerings (such as a jazz venue in a classy boutique hotel on the site of the former Marine Terminal).

    A number of Olympia residents have advocated for a waterfront trail from West Bay Park to Percival Landing to Swantown Marina to Squaxin Park - an alignment that forms a "Big W" or "string of pearls." This concept has been adopted in the City's Parks Plan, though the Marine Terminal stand in the way to fully realizing this vision. All of this is to agree with you that the times have changed and it's time to measure success not in a commercial port that has outlived its utility, nor in cents on the dollar, but in the joy that a unique and priceless public asset could bring to millions of people.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • bobkat

    I've written here on this subject when it was raised previously: Any entity wishing to do away with the Port of Olympia had best consider first making inquiries with the Federal Government and the Dept. of Defense. I STRONGLY suspect that that, because of its rail links and its proximity to JBLM, the DOD sees the Port of Olympia as a viable and valuable adjunct to the Port of Seattle...... especially in light of the current state of affairs in the Far East. Any local efforts to "close it down" might well be met with strong resistance at the Federal level. ..... just a thought .....

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • HappyOlympian

    What a terrific piece! I have been opposed to the exporting of logs here from the moment it was first suggested. Let Aberdeen and Hoquiam have the export facility. The port has horrible leadership and makes questionable choices such as the super-expensive fuel dock built a few years ago. The port needs to be closed, and our small county relieved of the costly burden of supporting the vampires in charge.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • TomInOly

    I agree with you Joe. Thanks for stating the case so eloquently.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • Citizen

    Excellent piece detailing the issues with the Port. I would add a foot ferry to Tacoma & Seattle. It could provide tourists with an easy and pleasant way to travel to the new events and uses of the Port property. Depending on the number of trips, it could help reduce traffic on I-5.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    Converting it from an industrial area to some Ruston-style planned development is not a panacea. Those things are just as much financial and accounting tricks as anything else. It sounds to me that the Port just needs to do a better job making money off it.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • KarenM

    Sea level rise needs to be considered for what happens next on the Port peninsula. Is it feasible to build in this area? How much are we willing to pay to protect this area from flooding? If private development of housing and businesses happens will the owners pay or will the public pay to protect the structures?

    I'm all for public access to the waterfront and restoration. The idea of full-on development needs some economic analysis.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • Yeti1981

    Honestly, there is a little section of the population here that supports shutting down the Port. And they lack vision. We should be improving Port operations, seeking new lines of business, and challenging those who refuse to see the benefits of the Port. According to the financial records of the Port, over 2,600 direct jobs, over $132 million in direct wages and salaries, over 1,300 induced jobs, and over 1,000 indirect jobs were supported by the Port in their 2021 financial benefits analysis. The claim that the Port loses money is suspect too. One of the "accounting tricks" that some folks use to back this argument is depreciation. An accounting measure that is easily compensated for and written off in the private sector, but the Port is a public entity. Let's also not forget the benefits and uniqueness of so-called break-bulk cargo, which can be directly shipped to hard to reach areas around the world and to where large cargo ships would have to break cargo down anyway. And, let us not forget the element of emergency management that makes the Port of Olympia necessary in case of a disaster. Perhaps having little to no escape routes or no access to the supplies we might need isn't the best idea. The real reason a contingent of short-sighted naysayers wants the Port shut down is because they don't care for industry and would rather have a park. It's actually quite in line with the rest of the anti-growth sentiment from this contingent. Well, unfortunately for them, growth is happening and it won't be stopped. The only thing we can do is grow with it.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • brobar

    If much of this land is fill dirt, it would be a danger during a earthquake. Make it a open park for everyone to enjoy, but NO camping! It could be a place that everyone can come safely without dangers of drug users.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • DanDDe

    Crystal clear and 50 years overdue, that the port needs to stops its corruption-based extortion of taxpayers.

    Hold up is not the Olympia city council but port commissioners bought and paid for by the timber industry.

    The obvious choice would be to open a sawmill, perhaps a skills college, along with lots of retail, and Craft businesses.

    To make the impossible happen, simply tax the timber company shipping raw resources to slave labor labor countries at $10,000 per log minimum.

    It would happen overnight.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • Aquila

    Kudos to Mr. Illing for so eloquently expressing what so many of us feel. As a 30 year resident on East Bay Drive, a close neighbor of the Port, we have witnessed a dramatic decrease in bird populations and salmon returns. This is due primarily to light and noise pollution as well as degradation of water quality. We also have concerns about the dozens of diesel log truck trucks that travel through our city to the Port on a daily basis.

    Sea level rise is certainly an issue and returning some of the Port area to marsh could certainly be part of the mitigation.

    Wednesday, June 21 Report this

  • FrostedFlake

    Yeah. Some of the finest land around, under a pile of logs. Logs that would be closer to where they came from and are going if that pile was in Aberdeen. Where, coincidentally, a lot of loggers live.

    While we are here, let's also look across the bay at the mysteriously undeveloped shoreline, which is apparently waiting for world war two to happen again... What's up with that? Did someone actually decide it was going to look like that? Did he work for the Port?

    Thursday, June 22 Report this

  • cascadian12

    There are obviously many questions as to how to use a potentially vacated marine terminal area and they can't all be answered here. The article simply advocates removing the cargo terminal and its associated activities from this particular site, and I've noted my whole-hearted agreement below. That doesn't mean that non-polluting activities, such as teaching the craft of wooden boat building, couldn't have a home here. A fast passenger ferry (catamaran) is another option. And activities like saw-milling could certainly move to another Port location, say around New Market. The point is to create a higher and better use for this area that is compatible with the needs of a growing population. The waterfront of Olympia is much more economically important to the City than it is to the Port, which should remain in the business of marina management and can pursue industrial activities elsewhere.

    To my way of thinking, the Marine Terminal doesn't add economic value; it extracts it. For example, the export of raw logs creates no value for the South Sound. It simply puts money in the pockets of the timber owners when local businesses could instead be creating all sorts of added value with this resource. Why are we exporting timber and wood-related jobs, and importing construction materials, when we could be developing a strong local building-materials sector here? The Pacific Northwest is one of the world's most important timber growing regions. There is huge potential for the growth of this sector locally, with wood products such as cross-laminated timber and windows and doors. To call people "anti-industry" because there are better uses of this port area is absurd. There are simply better places for heavy industry away from our waterfront.

    Finally, I don't agree that this area north of the Farmer's Market is appropriate for housing (south of the market - SOMA? - ok, but not north. This area should remain public.

    Thursday, June 22 Report this

  • cascadian12

    Correction: "noted my whole-hearted agreement ABOVE"

    Thursday, June 22 Report this

  • Grapesota

    Agreed! Terminate the terminal.

    Thursday, June 22 Report this

  • KarenM

    For Yeti 1981 - Please try to avoid name-calling and broad-brush accusations.Assuming that everyone who has concerns about the Port finances or operations is lumped into the one homogeneous group of 'naysayers' is a pretty big leap. What I see here are different types of concern about use of taxpayer dollars, environmental quality and questions about the viability of a deep water port in Olympia. Especially with the changes planned for the Deschutes Estuary and inevitable sea-level rise we should be thinking carefully about the future for our shoreline areas.

    Thursday, June 22 Report this

  • Yeti1981

    For KarenM - An interesting tactic to accuse me of "name calling," when I simply accurately described the folks against the port as naysayers. After all, it is exactly what they are. I never suggested they all were approaching the issue from the same angle. Simply that they are against the port. Still, it is an interesting strategy to attempt to devalue someone's opinion by accusing them of ill intent instead of considering the value of the facts presented in their argument. Short-sightedness is the main problem here.

    Friday, June 23 Report this

  • OlympiaUsedToBeANicePlaceToLive

    I never have understood why Olympia has a port, and beyond that, why taxpayers need to subsidize it.


    "According to the financial records of the Port, over 2,600 direct jobs, over $132 million in direct wages and salaries, over 1,300 induced jobs, and over 1,000 indirect jobs were supported by the Port in their 2021 financial benefits analysis."

    If those benefits can't be sustained without taxpayer subsidies, then the port is not financially viable. Get rid of it. Sure, some folks who benefit from that subsidy will complain, but let them pay for themselves.

    Monday, June 26 Report this

  • Yeti1981

    OlympiaUsedToBeANicePlaceToLive...nearly 5,000 jobs seems like a little more than just "some people." How many families is that? How many millions of dollars in wages and economic impact? Also, literally every piece of public infrastructure and every public entity is sustained through taxpayer funding. Should we also do away with roads? Fire Fighters? Police? The Port is a public entity meant to spur economic development. It does that. It isn't meant to make money. And it DOES bring in enough revenue to sustain. It also provides an essential piece of infrastructure in case of needed emergency management during a natural disaster. The right way forward isn't to shut down this asset, but to diversify and improve it.

    Wednesday, July 5 Report this