Ken O'Hollaren (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

Ken O'Hollaren (Keith Thorpe/Peninsula Daily News)

WEEKEND REWIND: Port of Port Angeles chief makes exit: mill site best chance for development, he says

PORT ANGELES — Nineteen acres of cold, wet, windblown ground could become the hottest piece of industrial real estate in Western Washington.

If it does, Ken O’Hollaren can say he knew it in the bad old days.

O’Hollaren, executive director of the Port of Port Angeles, will leave the job on Thursday, too soon to see the transformation — but not too soon to have foreseen it.

“It’s singly the best opportunity the port has for new industrial development,” O’Hollaren said in his First Street office, which overlooks the harbor.

“It’s unfortunate we had to button up that project for a few months.”

Work to backfill and regrade the site at 439 Marine Drive halted last month after heavy rains made the ground — now stripped of its contaminated soil — unworkable by heavy machinery. Efforts will resume in the spring.

By then, O’Hollaren, 60, will be living in Camas and working in Portland, Ore., for Barney & Worth, a consulting firm that specializes in serving nonprofit organizations and local governments.

It will be a homecoming for O’Hollaren, who grew up in Portland and worked for the Port of Longview, serving 35 years as its executive director.

He was interim executive director in Port Angeles for seven months starting in August 2013 and director starting April 1, 2014.

Airline, composite center

He’ll leave behind a list of port accomplishments that include:

■   The pending return of passenger air service between Fairchild International Airport in Port Angeles and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

■   The groundbreaking of a Composite Recycling Technology Center and establishing it as a nonprofit tenant at the airport.

“It’s just been a great experience personally and professionally to be up here,” O’Hollaren said.

“I can’t say enough about what this management team has been able to accomplish given its size and the complexity of what they have to deal with.”

Superintending the cleanup of those forlorn-looking 19 acres, however, might be what O’Hollaren will be happiest to recall.

“I am very optimistic at the prospects for the success of the Marine Trades Industrial Park,” he said, and he cited “the quality — not just the quantity — of inquiries about developing that site.”

Port pays its way

Although it expects to be reimbursed by Rayonier Inc. and other polluters and by the port’s insurer, the port has pushed ahead with cleaning up the KPly site and paying as it goes.

First, it leveled the huge 72-year-old mill building early in 2013 for $1.6 million.

Next, it toppled the smokestack that towered 175 feet over the mill, which had been reorganized as Peninsula Plywood until its bankruptcy in 2011, at a cost of $1.75 million in April 2013.

By summer 2015, the site had been cleared and inspected for the gasoline, diesel fuel, benzene, heavy oil, hydraulic fluid, toluene and other poisons that had soaked into its soil since 1941, and excavation started.

Long lines of trucks queued up along Marine Drive to haul off the polluted earth. They removed it all.

The process doubled in cost to $7.2 million when excavators found the toxic chemicals had penetrated deeper and wider on the site. Still, the port paid the bill.

On Nov. 27, following heavy rains, the port called a halt because, even if filled and graded, the site developed soft spots.

Tenants aplenty

Yet, O’Hollaren says, when fair weather dries out the site, prospective tenants will flock to it.

“The challenge will be finding enough space for everyone who wants to be there,” he said.

O’Hollaren won’t reveal what companies have expressed interest in coming to Port Angeles, but he’s as confident as a riverboat gambler with four aces in his hand.

“Assembling that much industrially zoned property in one location is difficult in Puget Sound,” he said, noting that Lake Union landowners would rather see condominiums on its shore than boat yards.

The port also can boast a 300-ton Marine TraveLift.

Port Angeles’ existing marine trades companies — Platypus Marine and Westport Yachts — demonstrate the area’s suitability for similar businesses, he said.

Both firms need neither an interstate highway nor a railroad to conduct business, he added.

Big rigs loom large

The star of the site is its frontage on a sheltered deepwater harbor.

Its value was dramatically illustrated by the giant Polar Pioneer floating atop the even larger MV Dockwise Vanguard before both left on Christmas Eve.

O’Hollaren said the port took aerial photos of the two vessels — plus the MV Blue Marlin bearing the oil rig Noble Discoverer before they departed earlier this month — for advertising purposes.

“All you have to do is point to that large piece of equipment out there in the harbor,” he said.

But the best thing may be the community’s willingness to welcome marine trades industries, as evidenced by its positive reception of the Polar Pioneer on its two visits to the harbor — and the drilling rig’s donation of 15 tons of food to Clallam County charities.

“I can’t think of a better example of a welcoming community,” O’Hollaren said.

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