BY BRYAN CORLISS
Port of Everett CEO Lisa Lefeber has got a long to-do list as she enters into her first calendar year in charge of the organization:
- Redevelop $26 million worth of recently acquired industrial land on the Everett waterfront;
- Coordinate with the cities of Arlington and Marysville to develop a new 4,000-acre manufacturing center;
- Continue the build-out of a new residential neighborhood along Everett’s urban waterfront;
- Maintain and promote the largest publicly owned marina on the West Coast; and
- Managing the activities of her two elementary-school-aged boys.
It’s a tall order, but those who know her say there could be no one better to guide the organization.
She has all the skills, said her predecessor as port chief executive, Les Reardanz. And more than enough passion.
The public’s port
Washington’s network of public port districts is unique to the state. Each one is an independent government agency overseen by a locally elected commission, a fact that sets Washington’s ports apart: The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, for example, is governed by commissioners appointed by the two states’ governors; the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are run as departments of their respective cities.
Port districts were created a century ago, and today, Washington has 75, all with the authority to levy taxes, issue bonds, acquire lands and develop facilities for use by private interests – all with the goal of stimulating commerce and creating jobs.
Some are huge. The Ports of Seattle and Tacoma – which combined operations in 2015 as the Northwest Seaport Alliance – represent the third-largest cargo port in the United States – plus the Port of Seattle operates Seattle Tacoma International Airport.
And if you rank the ports by the value of the products shipped through it, the Port of Everett is just as big.
E is for Everett, and enormous
The Port of Everett has three core businesses:
- A deep-water port, including adjacent industrial land;
- A huge public marina; and
- The Waterfront Place community development.
The port is an integral part of the Snohomish County manufacturing economy. Boeing assembles 747s, 767s, 777s and 787s just south of Everett. Crucial components of those planes – including oversized fuselage and wing pieces – are shipped to Everett from suppliers in Japan.
Those parts are stored at the port until needed, then they’re put on a barge for a short trip across Port Gardner to the port’s Mount Baker Terminal, where they’re loaded onto rail cars for a short journey up to the Boeing plant.
The total value of the assembled planes is a major reason why Snohomish County exports between $21 billion and $30 billion annually, making it one of the five largest export centers on the West Coast.
In addition to the Boeing-related shipping traffic, the Port of Everett also is home to Naval Station Everett. The port sold 143 acres to the Navy in 1987, which now employs 350 sailors and civilian personnel to run the base. About 6,000 sailors and civilians are assigned to the ships based there.
The working seaport has been one of the biggest challenges facing the port in the past decade, Lefeber said.
In November 2019, the port concluded negotiations to acquire the 58-acre site of the former Kimberly-Clark paper mill on the Everett waterfront. The mill had operated for decades, until Kimberly-Clark closed it in 2012, taking away 700 good-paying manufacturing jobs.
Lefeber said the goal is to complete an environmental clean-up on the site – partially funded with a $15.5 million federal grant — and have new businesses up and running in 2021. The district already has an agreement with Nichols Brothers Boat Builders to establish a ship-repair yard on land adjacent to the old mill site. Businesses now operating on that land will move to the mill site.
Lefeber said having the shipyard in place will help with efforts to convince the Navy to base more and bigger ships at Everett, which from 1997 to 2015 hosted aircraft carriers. In addition, the additional space will allow it to pursue more shipping business.
The port is looking for a tenant to take over the old Kimberly-Clark warehouse on the site – the only structure that’s being retained. The plan is to remodel it into an advanced manufacturing building, Lefeber said.
In all, officials estimate the Kimberly-Clark redevelopment project will bring some 950 jobs back to the waterfront.
In addition, the port in 2019 completed a $36 million upgrade to its South Terminal, which included the construction of a 700-foot wharf.
The Port of Everett operates the largest public marina on the West Coast, with moorage for 2,300 boats. The marina also includes a 13-lane boat launch ramp, upland boat storage and a full-service boat yard, along with a fuel dock, laundry and shower facilities.
Over the past decade, the port has invested $35 million into improvements at the marina, and in 2019, it was named the top large marina in the United States by Marina Dock Age magazine, a trade publication for marina and boatyard managers.
In reporting on the award, the magazine said that marinas were “judged on many categories, including business operations, facility improvements, environmental responsibility, industry involvement and more”.
The Everett marina is “a big piece of local tourism,” the magazine continued. “(T)he natural deep-water port features a variety of public access and recreational opportunities to support residents and visitors.”
One of those public access and recreational opportunities is Jetty Island, a 1,800-acre man-made island that protects the harbor. The island was first established about 100 years ago, from the spoils of dredging in the mouth of the Snohomish River. The port acquired it in 1929.
It’s now a popular tourist attraction in the summer, with families going taking a passenger ferry out to the island for bird watching. And in the past decade or so, Jetty Island has become one of the centers for kiteboarding in Puget Sound, with boarders taking advantage of consistent afternoon winds.
Stephen Sibborn is one of the organizers of an annual kiteboarding contest at Jetty Island. He told The Daily Herald of Everett last year that the port’s facility is one of the better spots for his sport.
We have a wide-open beach, the water is pretty warm relative to the Puget Sound area, and we get a nice steady breeze in the afternoon, he said.
The site has become quite a popular place in the Northwest for kiteboarding, and we’ve really watched it grow.
One of Lefeber’s longest-running challenges is completion of Waterfront Place, the port’s effort to convert 65 acres of industrial land into Everett’s first waterfront neighborhood.
The project has been in the works for two decades. In 2000, the Port of Everett formed a partnership with a private developer to build as many as 660 condos on acreage just north of the marina, with retail shops to provide services to the people living in them.
After a couple of years of planning, the developers started razing buildings on the site – and then the Great Recession hit. Financing dried up and the developer went bankrupt. The project stalled — but didn’t die.
The port has continued to work the project on its own, Lefeber said.
We’re taking a more active role in building out the waterfront, she said. All the engineering, all the planning.
The port already had taken the lead on clearing and cleaning the former industrial site, Lefeber said. But since it’s a first of its kind project in Everett, the agency also has had to take a leading role to encourage private investment. So far, it’s invested $150 million.
A major milestone was passed last year when Hotel Indigo opened at Waterfront Place. The 142-room luxury hotel – managed by the same company that operates the Salish Lodge at Snoqualmie Falls and Semiahoo Resort at Blaine – doubled the number of waterfront hotel rooms in Snohomish County and provided 8,000 square feet of meeting space, along with publicly accessible outdoor spaces.
Nearby, Seattle builder American Classic Homes is working on 254 apartments. The company paid the port $7 million for roughly 5.4 acres, on which it plans to build two buildings with apartments ranging from 550 to 1,300 square feet.
Lefeber said one of her goals for this year is to recruit retailers, to further the goal of making Waterfront Place a walk-able, livable neighborhood.
I want some restaurants open by the time the apartments are open, she said.
But wait there’s more
Away from the waterfront, the port is involved with the cities of Arlington and Marysville to develop some 4,000 acres that the two cities have designated for industrial development.
The three governments agreed in January to work together on the proposed Cascade Industrial Center on land near the Arlington airport. The vision: utilize the port’s expertise in industrial development to help the cities jointly develop land that has access to a rail line, air transport, Interstate 5 – and the port’s own seaport.
The goal is to lure companies through tax incentives that are available through state and federal programs for companies that locate in designated Manufacturing Industrial Centers, and to create homes for businesses that will employ as many as 25,000 people by 2040.
Add the Cascade Industrial Center to the long list of projects that the port’s doing on its own land, and it’s safe to say that the port’s new boss has a lot on her plate right now.
It’s a busy place, she said. It’s a very diverse job.
Lefeber’s been at the Port of Everett since 2005. She’d studied journalism at Western Washington University, and got introduced to the district as a reporter covering port commission meetings for the weekly Snohomish Tribune, which eventually led her to take a communications role at the port.
Over the years that role grew and expanded. She earned her master’s degree in public administration from Seattle University, and when her bosses came to her with new assignments, she took them. “You never say ‘no,’ right?”
In 2017, she was appointed deputy executive for the port district, in charge of marina operations. She served as temporary CEO in 2018, when Reardanz got called to active military duty. And when Reardanz announced he was leaving last year, commissioners needed little time to decide that Lefeber would replace him – thus becoming the port’s first female chief executive in its 100-year history.
As in many areas of American business and government, there has been a glass ceiling in public ports, but that may be changing. There are women in leadership positions among the 75 port districts around the state, and the Washington Public Ports Association’s president is Jean Rykman, a Port of Pasco commissioner.
Lefeber is one of the few, however, who is a working mom with elementary-school aged children. “There aren’t a lot in that demographic,” she said.
For her and her husband, Scott, being full-time working parents means a lot of juggling to make sure that Shawn, 9, and Ryan, 7, get to school and to after-school activities on time. (Scott is a senior communications manager with Boeing.)
“It’s the story of every working parent,” Lisa said. “We’re in constant communication on schedule, that’s for sure. If he has to travel, I have to stay back and re-align work.”
For Lefeber, it means getting to work early, then leaving in early afternoon to pick the kids up after school.
“I try to get home at a reasonable hour, to take them through their practices, dinner and bedtime,” she said. “Around 9 o’clock, that’s when work starts again,” when she sits down at her home computer to tie up the day’s loose ends.
Her experience has made a difference in how she leads the port staff, she said.
I’m not necessarily a butt-in-the-chair kind of person, Lefeber said.
That’s one thing I try to instill in our team, that flexibility is key. If you have that philosophy and that style, people are more productive.
With a busy young family and a full plate of high-profile projects at work, Lisa Lefeber isn’t expressing any second thoughts about her new role.
A lot of it, honestly, was just that I love to learn and I love the port industry, she said. The port industry is fascinating. It changes every day.