The Marine Terminal is an artifact of Olympia's industrial past

Here's a suggestion about what to do with it


I own a small commercial property in downtown Olympia, a short walk from the port peninsula's Marine Terminal (what most of us call "the port"). Needless to say, over the years, I've taken a keen interest in what happens there, or what doesn't happen there.

My point of view concerning the peninsula is distinctly different from those who work for, or receive funds from, the Port of Olympia. They see the Marine Terminal as one of the big pistons that drive Thurston County's economic engine. They shower us with facts, figures, charts and statistics to validate their assertion that the terminal bestows upon us a bounty of invaluable benefits.

These include 564 jobs "associated" with the terminal (that means some are essentially part-time). They point to a $135,000 annual profit as proof of the terminal's health -- if you don't count "depreciation" and pretend that equipment and buildings last forever, or that a profit margin of a few thousandths of a percent on "business revenue" of $33 million is laudatory.

All of this information, however, is essentially useless if we're to assess the value of the terminal to the general population. It compares apples to apples and fails to ask the single most important question concerning the Marine Terminal: Does it meet the needs of post-industrial Olympia? Does it add to, inhibit or subtract from the public good?

The Marine Terminal occupies a priceless piece of geography, a peninsula that juts out into the headwaters of Budd Inlet, offering unparalleled vistas of snowcapped mountains rising out of the sound. Its shoreline invites incomparable recreational opportunities. Urban amenities are within a short, easy walk. It's truly what the old-timers called "The Pearl of the Puget Sound."

Yet, in spite of its beauty and its unique attributes, and in spite of a century-long evolution of the community it serves, the terminal remains stuck in a 19th-century mindset ... and we use it for a log dump. It's like defacing the Mona Lisa.

The Marine Terminal is a vestige of Thurston County's industrial past.

Over the 95 years since the Port of Olympia was formally chartered, that era has vanished. The peninsula once hosted thirty lumber mills, five shingle mills, a veneer factory, a cannery and numerous shipbuilders.

It was a busy, productive place with plenty of living-wage jobs that generated big ripples in the local economy.

Those days are long gone.

All that remains is what's called a "weekend port" in maritime lingo (that translates as "small potatoes"). It has a marina, a children's museum, a tragically wrong-placed sewer treatment plant, a couple of fancy office buildings and a farmers market, all of which surround its once vibrant, beating heart ... today's "log dump," a mechanized no-man's land where monstrous machines belch diesel fumes while tossing around whole forests of logs like pick-up sticks.

Is this responsible stewardship of a singular asset like the ' 'peninsula? I think not. It's long since time to consider alternatives.

Here's an alternative

To see one such alternative just drive north to Granville Island in Vancouver, BC. The similarities between it 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 the mid-century. Then new economies, new methods of transportation and new ways of doing business changed old business models.

And that's when the shared destinies of these two entities diverged. In the 1970s the Canadians decided to bid adieu to the industrial use of the island and welcomed market activities. Today Granville Island, with half the land mass of the port peninsula, is alive with activity ... and prosperity. Today that island boasts 275 businesses that employ more than 2,500 people. It generates more than $215 million in economic activity each year, and fills Vancouver's tax coffers to overflowing.

The Port of Olympia's Marine Terminal, however, stuck with its out-of-date business model. It posts predictably disappointing results annually. If you compare our peninsula with Vancouver's Granville Island you must inevitably conclude that the terminal is not serving its community well.

It's time to close the books on the Marine Terminal and develop the peninsula to the benefit of all. Surround it with marinas and other maritime uses, provide access to Budd Inlet for all citizens of Thurston County, create housing for those who want to re-urbanize and turn ' 'the un-peopled port of today into a vibrant neighborhood that contributes in a meaningful way to the economic and cultural health of our community.

It's time the Port Commissioners exercised their fiduciary responsibility to the citizens and taxpayers of Thurston County and take a critical look at the peninsula and unlock its matchless potential. It's time for them to answer this simple question ... does the Marine Terminal represent the "highest and best" use of the peninsula?

If not, it's time to begin the transformation of the terminal from an artifact of our industrial past to an icon of a dynamic future. It can, and should, be done.

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

Editor's Note: The opinions in this piece are those of the writer and not the staff or board of The JOLT News Organization. If you have an opposing opinion or even an opinion about another local topic, we encourage you to write it up and send it to us for publication.  


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  • TonyW33

    Spot on Sir,

    This is the message that needs to be heard by the citizens of this county sooner rather than later. We needn't allow ourselves to be taxed to support this dinosaur facility when it would easily produce revenue for the county instead. Time to write an end to this and write a new book for this fair city. Tacoma is much better suited to running a marine terminal and the rest of us here in Thurston County could certainly stand the tax reduction.

    Monday, July 4, 2022 Report this

  • TomInOly

    Thanks Joe. Couldn’t agree more.

    Monday, July 4, 2022 Report this

  • Larry Dzieza

    Excellent points.

    The article didn't directly say it but we are subsidizing the port with our property taxes. It is a money loser. Worse it represents environmental and economic anachronisms.

    If the Port were to operate at its highest and best use as the author suggested we would all be better off financially. We would not only not be paying taxes for a failed business model, we would be generating positive revenues through tax collections for sales taxes and all of our homes and businesses would be increase in value as a result of increasing the desireability of living in the Thurston County area, ala Granville Island.

    Monday, July 4, 2022 Report this

  • Qphillips

    I agree that the “Port” needs to be rethought.

    The existing leadership has an opportunity but is mired in the past. Drive up to the Farmers Market. You will notice a large blue crane that dominates the view. This crane rarely moves. Leadership’s thought was build it and they will come. If you were to evaluate the recent business decisions surrounding equipment acquisitions etc we would find that there are no real concrete or meaningful evaluations on basic acquisitions. Remove the developers and put real leaders into the port administration to help bring us into the future.

    Monday, July 4, 2022 Report this

  • BobJacobs

    The Marine Terminal is a huge money loser. This means that Thurston County taxpayers are subsidizing the likes of


    It will continue to lose money because it is in a terrible location, lacking in all the characteristics needed for a good shipping port. It has shallow water, is too far from trading partners, is difficult and dangerous to get to, etc.

    All efforts to diversify cargoes have failed due to location.

    It is beyond time to shut down the marine terminal, cut our losses, and find another use for the land, one that actually benefits Thurston County residents.

    Bob Jacobs

    Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Report this

  • northbeachcomm

    The Jolt author, Bob Illing says he owns property near the Port of Olympia Marine terminal. Then in this article, there shown a large map of the Port isthmus, showing sea level rise concerns. These concerns are not addressed in the article. Bob Illing says we should use the isthmus in a different way, no more Port marine terminal; I agree.But he goes on to say he wants businesses there on the isthmus. He never addresses sea level rise concerns; why? Because he wants to make money with his property on the isthmus, no surprise there. Bob Illing wants the isthmus to be developed with hundreds of small businesses; small buildings. Who will protect these buildings from salt water flooding?

    The Port of Olympia plan; the "Destination Waterfront" is a developer's dream of hundreds of small buildings on the isthmus!

    Developers will make tons of money. The local architect, Ron Thomas recently gave the Port a preview of this "dream of his development" on the isthmus, on sea level rise “flooded property”. Ron Thomas the developer, wants hundreds of tiny businesses on the isthmus. Who or what will protect these businesses from the rising salt water of Budd Inlet? What are we going to do as we have more and more flooding on the isthmus? That map at the beginning of Bob’s article of "Destination Waterfront" sea level rise, gives us some options;

    1." a Living shoreline", it shows a picture of a shoreline of a park? We could all use a park to exercise, play in. THIS IS THE ONLY OPTION THAT MAKES SENSE.

    2. " flood walls" on buildings; so it is a wall in the front door of the businesses to keep out salt water? What about the roads, and curbs and gutters? Is this wall, this flood wall in the front of doorways of businesses going to help?

    Who will pay to evacuate the people inside these buildings during a flood event? The tax payers will pay.

    3. "rapid development" is a tiny metal gate in front of business doors. This is a joke. It will not stop destruction of the isthmus.

    4. “Raised Streets”…tax payers will pay for this!

    5. “Raised landscaping” ….Tax payers will pay for this

    This list of how tax payers can pay for businesses on the isthmus goes on and on; I am sick of it.

    I do not want to pay taxes, to protect businesses from sea level rise!

    I am sure that Bob Illing would love to have tax payers foot the bill to develop the isthmus; Tax payers DO NOT WANT TO PAY TAXES FOR THIS EFFORT!

    Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Report this

  • MikePelly

    That just makes tooo much sense. Yup Port Commission it's time to catch up with the times and quit wasting our tax dollars while aiding in the destruction and elimination of our North West forests and wildlife habitat.

    Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Report this

  • Zitaport

    The people of Thurston County agree with Mr. Illing, generally. In the Port of Olympia’s big “Vision 2050” survey 3 years ago, people rated their priorities for the future of the marine terminal, among other things. You might remember filling out those white cards at events.

    People’s top priority at the marine terminal is RECREATION, in the port’s Vision 2050. People want to be able to walk and fish, swim and kayak. They want clean water and a restored shoreline. The port is not working toward that goal now; shorelines and water are contaminated and people and dogs are warned to stay out. Deschutes Estuary Restoration could be a major step toward a healthier South Salish ecosystem, and restored recreation. The port opposes estuary restoration, complaining that it will interfere with navigation. The port boss indicated last year that her mind could be changed if Thurston County ponies up millions of dollars for dredging that the port has long needed but cannot afford.

    People’s lowest priority is more shipping at the marine terminal, in the port’s Vision 2050. As Mr. Illing notes, that ship has sailed and those days are over. Marine Terminal operations and maintenance cost taxpayers about $2 M per year.

    The Port of Olympia was established 100 years ago to ensure public access to the waterfront. But the people are blocked from the port peninsula by barbed wire and guards. The land, shoreline, and water are contaminated by the port.

    The port’s #1 priority should be ecosystem restoration of the peninsula, and its return to the public - in cooperation with the Medicine Creek Treaty tribes, especially the Squaxin Island Tribe. That would meet the priorities of the people of Thurston County. That would fit the goals of all other governments on Thurston County, which agree on Estuary Restoration. That would prepare our region better for climate impacts (see Olympia’s Sea Level Rise plan, especially the Port section). It would be just and wise.

    And restoring the port peninsula for recreation would be financially smart. Recreation is undercapitalized in Thurston County, and that is a prime location that people are eager to enjoy with their families - not for movies or tours on asphalt, but in nature. The nearby Farmer’s Market is already the biggest tourist attraction in the area, drawing tens of thousands of shoppers from outside the area. Instead of losing millions every year to an uncompetitive and unpopular marine terminal, the port could be making millions by providing healthy recreation.

    Does the port take its own Vison 2050 input seriously? Or does it only hear what fits business as usual? Will Commissioner Downing support another big tax increase to support the Marine Terminal? We’ll find out in November.

    Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Report this

  • Southsoundguy

    Here’s a question: is “post-industrial” Olympia really any good for people?

    Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Report this

  • JohnGear

    There is an awful lot to commend in this piece, but it falls a little short by assuming that it should be easy to wave away the objections of those who benefit from the status quo.

    On the plus side, the piece is very much aligned with the thinking of Strong Towns (, which does a lot of work to promote a development patter than makes cities and towns stronger and more fiscally resilient. It's clear that continuing a vestigal activity just because we've always done it that way is absurd.

    On the minus side, the piece seems to ignore human nature, and thus organizational nature. Human nature is to carry on comfortable and familiar activities long after the point where it makes sense--change is disruptive to those affected, and the small numbers of those who will be intensely affected can readily combine forces and punch much harder than the much greater number of people who are at most peripherally affected by the status quo. The folks who will lose their jobs have a lot more incentive to fight this than do the many more folks who will struggle to detect any change in their property taxes when this change finally comes (as it inevitably will). The fastest road to happiness here is to figure out a transition plan that pays due respect to folks who work there, rather than just demanding that they simply disappear and lose their livelihoods without a struggle. Sort of what we should have done for all the other steps in de-industrialization.

    I think the concerns about sea level rise can be addressed through design -- yes, it's more expensive to build that way, but the rewards for building up and creating more housing are so substantial that projects should pencil out just fine. Assuming that there's not some reason that building upward is problematic . . . .

    Which brings us to the far greater barrier that I see and that might well make any substantial amount of vertical development cost prohibitive: the Cascadia Subduction Zone quake that we're overdue for. The costs of trying to build multistory buildings capable of surviving the accelerations caused by a 9.0+ quake on that dredge fill would be astronomical. It does no good to build with an eye to protect against the much more gradual threat of sea level rise but ignore the catastrophic threat of liquified soils leading to collapsed structures and total loss of life.

    Tuesday, July 5, 2022 Report this

  • bobkat

    I raise this question because I honestly do not know the answer to it.

    While the land surrounding the port may be owned/controlled by public and private entities, the port itself is a NAVIGABLE WATERWAY and falls under the jurisdiction of the US Coast Guard.

    QUESTION: Should unknowable events arise and operations or deployment of military assets at Joint Base Lewis-McChord become necessary . . . . . in The Port's role as an ancillary shipping facility, what might be the Federal government's views on the downgrading, decommissioning, or disposal of The Port of Olympia? Has this been considered, or is this a moot point?

    Wednesday, July 6, 2022 Report this

  • Eskillman

    ILWU local #47 has had the busiest year hours wise of any longshore local on the west coast. We put more money into the local economy than any tourist port could dream of. If you want to talk numbers call me any time. Eli Skillman, president of local #47 Olympia. 360-357-5915.

    Saturday, July 9, 2022 Report this

  • Eskillman

    Bottom line is good riddance to Zita, with Weyerhaeuser, rice, sugar, steel pipe, and cattle ship exports there is a bright future at the Port of Olympia.

    Saturday, July 9, 2022 Report this