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Seitle says goodbye after leading port board

Rolf Seitle in the back yard of his Langley home overlooking the revitalized South Whidbey Marina. After more than six years, Seitle has attended his final meeting as port commissioner. - Jeff VanDerford / The Record
Rolf Seitle in the back yard of his Langley home overlooking the revitalized South Whidbey Marina. After more than six years, Seitle has attended his final meeting as port commissioner.
— image credit: Jeff VanDerford / The Record

LANGLEY — When Rolf Seitle was first appointed as commissioner to the Port of South Whidbey in 2003, there was no staff, no office and the organization's primary role was to oversee a couple of boat-launch ramps.

"The port looked to me like a second parks district," he said at his home on Monday.

Six years later, things have changed — there's a part and full-time staff totaling six and the district has begun to outgrow its office in Freeland.

Oh, and they own and operate a marina, too.

Last week, Seitle attended his final meeting as commissioner representing Langley; Chris Jerome will be sworn in to take his place on Jan. 12.

Seitle recalled that former Port Commissioner Gene Sears believed the port shouldn't undertake projects on its own, but rather underwrite other agencies' efforts.

For example, the Department of Fish & Wildlife wanted to update the ramp at Bush Point. The agency would design and build it, then the port would operate it so fishermen could launch their craft on the west side of Whidbey.

"The basic philosophy was to let the other guys do it," Seitle said. "That way, the tax money would be redistributed, but we wouldn't have a controlling interest. Of course, as things turned out, we ended up owning Bush Point but that wasn't the original idea."

Despite Sears' best intentions, even then there were efforts to re-imagine the port's role in the economic future of the South End.

The first came when the Langley City Council undertook a study of the harbor after securing funding from the port, with an eye toward developing a conceptual idea for marina expansion.

"My problem was that the city hired a landscape architect — with our money — who provided pretty drawings but insufficient engineering data," he said. "Clearly, the marina needed to be run with an eye to making it profitable. The question became, who could accomplish that?"

The second step in the port's transformation to an economic player dealt with a ramshackle old building located just past the Clinton ferry dock.

"It offered a very poor impression of the island to visitors coming off the ferry," Seitle said. "Using a state grant, we bought the property and began the process of turning it into a park. It was the first project that we saw through to completion. It was an immense help that, by then, we had a construction expert, Ed Field, as port manager."

Seitle said that the Clinton Beach park changed the port's direction forever and gave confidence to the idea of taking over and renovating the marina itself, which he termed a "neglected facility."

Over time, Seitle and fellow commissioners Lynae Slinden and Geoff Tapert began to view the Langley marina acquisition as a real opportunity to expand the port's operations while meeting the essential goals of economic development, environmental stewardship and thoughtful governance.

The road to ownership at the harbor wasn't an easy one.

"Some on the city council wanted us to pay for the marina, even though they admitted the city did not have the wherewithal to fix it themselves," Seitle said. "Another engineering study estimated the cost to be more than $18 million, an unrealistic proposal in view of certain assumptions made about private property acquisition."

Once the agreement to take over was made, the port went before the public with an overly optimistic conceptual design that envisioned a couple of multi-storied structures. In a series of well-attended and hotly-debated meetings, the port was forced back to the drawing board.

Eventually, commissioners presented South Whidbey taxpayers with an $8.2 million 100-slip marina in Langley — including 65 permanent and 35 transient slips — to be paid for by a 20-year levy.

But as the recession deepened, voters rejected the proposal in November 2008.

Since taking control of the marina in January, the port has spent money to upgrade parking, improve the boat-launch ramp and relocate Phil Simon Park. Gradually, more Puget Sound boaters have been enticed to give Langley a try and it's expected that the port will break even in 2010.

"The expanded marina, coupled with harbormaster Rick Brewer's efforts, will greatly increase the economic activity for all South Whidbey," Seitle said.

For better or worse, revenue is dependent on tourism but Seitle wants to explore alternatives.

"Can we do something to interest companies who would provide jobs, but not destroy what we love about the island?" he asked.

Seitle has been thinking hard about it. Over the years, he has contacted companies like Microsoft to see if they would relocate even a small part of their business to Whidbey.

"If we subsidized 20 or so employees to come here and each created three more support jobs, that would meet a key goal for us," he said.

Seitle noted that he has become increasingly worried about an "underlying class" of people on the island in dire economic straits.

"Some are retired, others are young with families," he said. "The port must engage in areas that will help in a tough economic climate. For that reason, I see the harbor as being the best potential and it should be a priority."

As for the new commissioners — Jerome and Curt Gordon of Clinton — Seitle hopes neither falls into what he terms the "parochial attitude."

"Each commissioner is selected from his or her own community, then voted on by all in the district," he explained. "They need to look beyond individual interests and see things from a district-wide viewpoint.

"If they can do that, they'll be fine."

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or jvanderford@southwhidbeyrecord.com.

Coming to America

Born in Vienna during the Nazi-occupation of Austria, Rolf Seitle graduated with a degree in electrical engineering when he came to the attention of the U.S. State Department. They were looking for translators to help rebuild Europe's war-torn economy; eventually he came to America, joined the Army and became a citizen.

He recalled his first culinary experiences while working in Georgia.

"Three of my first English words were, 'Hold the grits,'" he said.

Seitle worked as an engineer for television stations in Tampa, Fla. and San Francisco, Calif., including a stint as cameraman for the White House communications agency.

In 1956, Seitle was hired by a public television station in Chicago, Ill. but there was a problem; when they broadcast classical concerts, no one could read music. Several young ladies from Northwestern University were hired to remedy the situation and one in particular caught Seitle's eye.

Fifty years later, Rolf and Barbara Seitle celebrated their marriage with a return to the pizza joints and cafés of their youth.

Seitle returned to the Bay Area and put his engineering skills to work in the aerospace industry, becoming vice president of Transdyn Controls by the time he retired and moved to Whidbey in 1997, then was appointed port commissioner representing Langley in the summer of 2003.

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