Three men running for port district commissioner
July 31, 2009 · Updated 7:14 AM
With South Whidbey Port Commissioner Rolf Seitle deciding not to run for a second six-year term, three men — Dean Enell, Herb Helsel and Chris Jerome — have tossed their hats in the ring for the Aug. 18 primary.
The primary battle is restricted to the 3,930 registered voters in District 2 and Langley residents have until Aug. 6 to register. The two men with the most votes will face each other in the Nov. 3 General Election.
All three said they've been studying port documents and have attended at least the past four monthly meetings in an effort to be ready to meet the voters at Thursday night's candidate forum in Freeland.
It wasn't too long ago that the South Whidbey Port District concentrated on boat launch ramps. In fact, the port's logo is a stylized boat trailer being let into the water.
But, beginning in 2005 with the election of Geoff Tapert as port commissioner, the board's emphasis has increasingly been economic development.
While the port still operates South End launch ramps and park facilities, the South Whidbey Harbor and its marina have become the focus. In January, the port formally assumed control of the marina from the city of Langley, hired a full-time harbormaster and is now in the permitting process for the marina's first phase, designed to allow a total of 84 slips and dockage space for larger vessels by 2011.
It would have been a much bigger project, but voters turned down a request for a $9.1 million bond last November, despite the commissioner's assurance it would generate over $3 million in revenue annually.
If there's one point of agreement for this year's port commission candidates, it is that economic development must be the prime focus for the port in the years ahead.
Enell, 61, has lived on South Whidbey for 20 years. After earning a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Washington, he spent his working life as a software engineer for the aerospace industry and worked at Boeing. He is now retired.
He's never held an elective office, but ran unsuccessfully for Island County commissioner in 2004. Recently, he's been heavily involved in the Freeland incorporation effort.
"I've been involved in local progessive movements for most of my 20 years here, including being a founding member and chairman of Whidbey Washington Conservation Voters, Hearts & Hammers house captain and board member of the South Whidbey Children's Center," he said.
"I see the port as being an economic driver for all of South Whidbey," he said. "However, there must be nothing that extracts resources or causes an increase in traffic, such as big-box retailers."
Enell favors enterprises that fit the island's rural character, such as cottage industries and businesses that rely on information technology. He believes the port could establish small office spaces that would provide start-up high-tech businesses a place to operate while paying rent to the port.
He said he supported the marina bond effort and applauded the current commissioners for making inroads to improve the marina.
"The marina is priority number one, and I'm in favor of going to the taxpayers again because the marina would benefit the entire island," he said.
Enell said he had doubts about a port takeover of Whidbey Airpark.
"The idea of an airport out there would stimulate the economy, but the location isn't the best and it would take up huge resources to build and operate," he said. "Access is a huge concern as well."
Enell said he favors making the port's boat launch operations at least revenue-neutral at best.
"Most of the port's resources now go into providing access for boaters," he said. "Highlighted by the recession, the port needs to to branch out."
Enell's Web site can be found at www2.whidbey.net/dino/thecandidate.
Helsel, 72, owns Langley Clock and Gallery and served as a community representative during the harbor negotiations between the city and port last year.
He spent 34 years as owner of a motorcycle shop in Oregon before moving to Whidbey
12 years ago. In the 1980s, he served an elected position on the city planning board in his hometown of Cottage Grove.
"I have a strong background in business; numbers, statistics, profit-and-loss statements," he said.
During the harbor agreement process, Helsel saw that city and port officials were unanimous in wanting to attract more people to the area.
"The marina is an essential part of South Whidbey's history and future," he said. "My focus as commissioner will be to get the marina going so it has a life of its own. It isn't the cure for all our economic ills, but it's certainly an important part."
Helsel believes the facility should reflect the community's size. A 300-slip behemoth wouldn't make any sense, he said.
"I think a marina with 80 slips and room for larger boats is about right," he said. "I urged the city years ago to define what they wanted there. This will be the port's biggest project ever and we need to show the public we have the ability to build and operate it. It's a good chance to create a positive track record."
To be sure, Helsel is no stranger to the Langley Marina.
"I also volunteered last summer, helping the harbormaster tie up boats and greet visitors," Helsel added. "I have a passion for that marina. My focus as commissioner would be to get Phase I under way, then move on from there."
Helsel said he considers himself a "practical guy" who favors finishing one thing before moving on to something else.
He noted a recent 2-1 port decision to shut down more studies at the airpark.
"If there's money available to do a study, we should pursue it, especially if someone else is footing the bill," he said. "But I'm not convinced we could get public support for an airport."
He recognizes the challenges ahead and feels his strong sense of community service is the main reason he's running. "I've always given more I take."
Helsel does not have a campaign Web site, but can be reached at his shop, 221-3422, or by e-mail at email@example.com.
The youngest candidate at 54, Jerome is a native of London, England. After studying veterinary medicine, he came to America and got his doctorate's degree in comparative pathology at the University of California in Davis.
He then moved to Seattle to run a medical research company, Skeletech, and moved to Whidbey in 1997.
"By pure luck, we drove through South Whidbey and fell in love with it," he recalled.
Today, Jerome is a scientific consultant who does medical research from his home in Langley. He keeps a 24-foot sailboat at the marina and is an avid kayaker.
He makes no bones about the primary reason he's running for port commissioner.
"I'm mainly interested in the economic development aspects of the port," he said. "I have a boat in the marina, and I believe the future of the harbor is important for the health of the entire South End."
Jerome said that the experiences he had acquiring venture capital for his company gave him valuable knowledge about the investment process.
"I believe economic development should be the port's primary mission," he said. "The port simply can't afford to be a 'parks department' unless it has a solid and successful financial foundation."
He said there's a constant drumbeat at port meetings about money being spent at properties such as Freeland Park or Bush Point and thinks they could be made financially-sustainable through launching fees.
"Based on my analysis, it appears that current port expenditures lean heavily toward maintenance of marine and beach access without much in the way of revenue-producing or economic development potential," he said.
Jerome wants to see the marina built to the largest extent possible with available funds. It should also be self-supporting on an operational basis, he said.
"It needs to be a desirable place for both visitors and locals to visit," he said. "The commissioners have laid a fantastic groundwork down there," Jerome added. "The marina is a really good example of economic development."
Beyond the harbor, he wants the port to explore other ideas.
He said that creating an atmosphere where entrepreneurs can succeed fits perfectly into the port's six-year comprehensive plan.
"We should look at incubator buildings for businesses," he said. "We can bring investors to the island in a partnership with the port. It's one thing to have a concept, another to bring in the money that will create quality jobs that pay a living wage."
He admits that he was upset to hear that commissioners voted to halt further discussions about an airport.
"I'm not convinced an airport is viable or a solution," he said. "Nevertheless, there is value in having public closure on an issue and the decision to halt was premature. We should keep the debate alive to see where it heads."
Jerome said he wouldn't rule out going to the taxpayers for a major capital project, like the marina.
"But the best option is to be financially self-supporting so that revenue and expenses are more evenly matched," he noted.
Jerome's Web site can be found at chrisjerome4psw.com.
Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Voters can meet candidates tomorrow
A forum for the three candidates for Port of South Whidbey commissioner and the four running for Fire District 3 commissioner will be held Thursday night, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of South Whidbey Island.
The public forum will be at 7 p.m. Thursday, July 30 at Trinity Lutheran Church's Grigware Hall in Freeland.