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The end of an era | Porter reflects on 30 years as parks leader
Back when Jim Porter helped launch and lead the South Whidbey Parks and Recreation District, cassettes were still the preferred mobile medium for music, Ronald Reagan was president, and “Star Wars Return of the Jedi” first played for theater audiences.
Now, 30 years later, Porter will attend his final parks commissioners meeting Dec. 17, the capstone to a long career in public service.
“It’s a good, round year,” the 67-year-old Porter said of his decision to leave the parks board. “We can get some young, new blood, new thinking in here.”
In 1983 when a group of volunteers worked diligently to found the parks district, the guiding goal was a community center with nearby ballfields. Today, that remains a goal parks leaders strive toward with renewed discussion of an aquatic and community center on South Whidbey.
“If there’s anything that was unfulfilled, it’s that,” Porter said.
He is one of the longest-tenured elected officials in the parks district’s history, if not South Whidbey and Island County history. The runner-up in terms of years served is Curt Gordon, now a Port of South Whidbey commissioner, who served 20 years on the parks board.
“He and I were side-by-side building a lot of the things that they’re doing now,” Gordon said of Porter.
“I watched Jim take that stalwart position and continue on down the line. He had this overwhelming sense of responsibility and sense of community spirit. He just wasn’t willing to leave. He knew there was more to do.”
Porter’s family has lived on Whidbey Island since the late 1850s. He recalled growing up on South Whidbey, playing at the scattered ballfields around the area in Midvale and Maxwelton.
When momentum built toward founding a tax-funded park district — back then the vision was for a single property — Porter joined the cause. South Whidbey Parks started with about 40 acres of land donated by the Waterman family, the property that makes up the heart of Community Park. Eventually, the district purchased more land surrounding the initial donation, as well as taking on other properties like Trustland Trails and the Sports Complex. Now the district manages about 420 acres including three lakes.
Guiding that growth for the past three decades was Porter and the fellow commissioners who served with him. But year after year, term after term, one constant remained: Jim Porter.
“He’s a great guy to have in your corner,” Gordon said. “He wasn’t one to go out and take the most visible position, but he could be counted on.”
Despite seeing the district’s responsibilities multiply ten-fold over his tenure, Porter cautioned against South Whidbey Parks taking on too much in the coming years. Talk has resumed about seeking funding for a smaller aquatic center and assuming ownership of county properties like Dan Porter Memorial Park (no relation to Jim Porter), Dave Mackie Park and Freeland Park.
“Economically we have to keep a close watch on it because we’ve never raised the levy,” he said, referring to the district’s long-standing 15 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation maintenance and operations levy.
With renewed discussion of an aquatic center on Maxwelton Road near Community Park and the district’s current headquarters, Porter said it was important that the district keep in mind all of its users. He noted that Clinton could use a draw, and said he wanted Porter Park ownership made a district priority, should any of those properties become available or face threat of closure.
“Maybe that’s where the district can make the most impact,” Jim Porter said.
Though his high park-use days are over — he’s an avid racquetball player at Island Athletic Club and golfer — he still has fondness for the parks on South Whidbey. Places he spent time with his wife, Karrie, and sons Jason and Ryan, now adults.
“I would hope that I served the community,” Porter said. “I always had the best interest of the community at heart.”
Porter resigns having never lost and, to his memory, never being challenged in an election.