PORT TOWNSEND — Saying that he’s now returned home, Jim Pivarnik has settled in at the helm of the Port of Port Townsend as interim executive director following the resignation of former executive director Sam Gibboney in August.
Pivarnik left his executive director position at the Port of Kingston where he served for over two years, beginning in 2015, to return to the port where he was deputy director for 15 years. His contract is for one year, after which he plans to retire.
“When I left here to go to Kingston it was a different time, a different commission, and a different feeling,” Pivarnik said, reflecting on his tenure.
“The reason I came back was that I realized, through this process, I left my own community. Port Townsend has been my home for 20 years and given the opportunity to come back and be part of helping my community was really important to me.
Pivarnik, who will be paid $132,000 for the year, has a big job to manage. The port suffers from budget issues, an infrastructure that needs attention, and an image problem that has festered for several years.
“We have infrastructure that was built in the ’60s,” said Pivarnik, who began work Sept. 18. “Every marina is facing this. It needs to be replaced. Back then you could build a marina for a million dollars. Today, it will take $20 million. It’s a difficult thing to do; the numbers just don’t work.”
The port has struggled with finding funds to replace the two failing Point Hudson jetties, as well as other infrastructure in need of repair or replacement, and has faced issues with leases and financial problems.
Commissioner Bill Putney said those issues are being addressed with new vigor and focus now.
“Everyone was part of the problem,” Putney said. “Previous commissions were part of the problem, maybe even this one. The port staff — Larry Crockett [former executive director] and Jim — were contributors.”
“I think there was plenty of blame to go around and I think we are just on a different trajectory now,” Putney said.
“We can start to turn it around. That’s really the job — to get the port back on an even financial keel without breaking the backs of all of the tenants. It’s a very complicated calculus to do, but there’s no getting around having to do it.
“Jim’s going to be a key player. He has institutional knowledge and can hit the ground running. We’re happy to have him.”
Pivarnik says the financial troubles facing the port are due to many factors, not mismanagement of funds during his previous tenure.
“You have to understand how government works,” he said. ”A lowly assistant manager of a port does not make decisions. It’s a process. That is not only an executive director’s job and not one commissioner’s job, it’s the job of the body politic. This is what we need to do.”
Pivarnik points to the over $10 million in infrastructure that the port invested in while he was on staff.
“If you look at the heavy haul out, it wouldn’t have happened without us. The new lift pier wouldn’t have happened without us. The new taxiways at the airport, the new docks at Point Hudson, A/B dock — we’re talking multi-million dollar projects that were done during our regime.”
Pivarnik said that there are many major projects to accomplish at the port, but that in his short tenure he will be able to focus on only a few. Building relationships and listening is high on his list. One of his first meetings was with the Port Townsend Marine Trades Association.
Said Chris Sanok, association chairman: “The marine trades directly generate more than 1,100 jobs in Jefferson County and contribute $5.8 million in county and local taxes. Jim’s past work as deputy director has contributed to that economic success story.
“He knows how to negotiate market rate leases that encourage economic development. He understands the importance of open government and transparency, and has shown a willingness to work with stakeholders, such as the Marine Trades, to reach mutually common goals.”
“We look forward to budget documents with adequate detail that allow for informed public and commissioner input. We look forward to financial analysis documents that differentiate between the different business units managed by the port.
“There are some real financial challenges ahead for the port. These will only be navigated successfully with an approach that is disciplined and creative. The 2019 budget that Jim proposed with significant expense reductions is an example of the approach that is needed.”
The project most discussed of late, and which has been a lightning rod for the port commission and staff, is the Point Hudson south jetty replacement.
“Everybody focuses on the breakwater,” Pivarnik said. “If you look through the file, in 2013 I hired an engineer to evaluate that breakwater. I hired Mott MacDonald, which was then Coast & Harbor Engineering, to engineer that breakwater. That breakwater should have been done two years ago. Nothing was done.
“It all comes down to money. At the end of the day when you make a decision, you have to weigh a lot of things. The breakwater needed to be done three years ago, four years ago. But the question is where is the $3 million, $4 million, $6 million dollars?
“Commissioner Putney said it well to me when I was interviewing for the job to come back. You know, if we had done this three years ago, we would have been able to afford it. But with steel tariffs, now the price is cost-prohibitive and we don’t know how to fund it.”
Pivarnik has two other major projects on his list to accomplish during the next 12 months.
“The stormwater project is the biggest thing we’re doing. There are 450 direct jobs related to that. We gotta get it right,” Pivarnik said.
“We need to figure out a long-term solution, and I believe it is out there. I’ve learned that the (state) Department of Ecology is standing by to help us in any way they can, with possible funding solutions.”
Pivarnik also is interested in revisiting the Northwest Maritime Center’s proposal to manage the Point Hudson Marina campus. He hopes the proposal can be reworked to satisfy all parties involved.
“The Maritime Center’s executive director, Jake Beattie, pulled the deal after five months because he received no response from port management,” Pivarnik said. In his view, the situation was “not handled well.”
He said such an agreement may be one way to help the port get back on a firm financial track.
“It might be the right thing to do,” he said. “The numbers have to work. They want to rent it and have the port maintain it. We make $250,000 at Point Hudson. That includes all the maintenance we do. If we get $200,000 in rent, we’re already losing money. One of my biggest concerns is that the port owns all the streets and the utilities, the sewer, and we’re responsible for them. Jake needs to know what our financials are.”
Pivarnik doesn’t know if he can accomplish his punch list of projects in a year.
He feels the toughest job will be to find someone who is qualified and who will fit into the community to be his successor.
“As treasurer of WPPA (Washington Public Ports Association), I know the pool out there. We should really try to find someone who understands this community. I came from Salem, Oregon and I had a dream that I could fit into this community. I did. It can be done.
“This job isn’t about running a marina, or an airport, but how Washington ports fit into RCW 53 (concerning port districts). Whoever is in charge needs to have that background, understand staff and how it all works together.”
Jefferson County Editor/Reporter Jeannie McMacken can be reached at 360-385-2335 or at [email protected]