The Port of Olympia: 100 years of partnerships and economic development


In 1922, the iconic Lincoln Memorial was dedicated, Readers Digest magazine published its first issue, and Walgreens introduced malt shakes. Closer to home, the Port of Olympia district was born out of relentless civic partnerships and a shared passion for economic growth. Today, a century later, we are still reaping the benefits of this #workingwaterfront and its tremendous reach throughout Thurston County.

The Port of Olympia originated 100 years ago and has been a hub of industry ever since. Photo Courtesy: Port of Olympia

At the start of the 20th century, ports and waterfronts were increasingly controlled by private corporations such as railroads and steamship companies. The expansion of trade during the Industrial Revolution increased the value of access to port facilities and infrastructure. With Washington State being more dependent on foreign trade than other states, public sentiment began to turn in favor of publicly accessible ports and waterfronts, and in 1922 the Port of Olympia was formed by a vote of the citizens of Thurston County.

The port of Olympia is much more than a loading and unloading area for ships carrying goods. Its geographical, economic, social and environmental footprint is significant. Like all of Washington’s 75 public port districts, the Port of Olympia’s primary goal is the economic development of its community, which translates into job creation. “And not just jobs, but jobs that pay a family wage and encourage growth throughout the Port District,” says the Washington Public Ports Association (WPPA).

Ports don’t have to be on the water, although many are. “The primary purpose of a port district in Washington state is economic development, and you don’t need a waterway to achieve that,” says the WPPA. “The legislature has given ports broad authority to promote economic development – ​​they can build and operate airports, marine terminals, marinas, railways and industrial parks and, in some cases, promote tourism.

Swantown Olympia Bridge, Washington early 1860s.
Swantown Bridge Olympia, Washington early 1860s. Olympia in the 1860s was a very different place than the one we know and love today. Photo Courtesy: Port of Olympia

The Port of Olympia includes the Swantown Marina and Swantown Boatworks, Seaport, Olympia Regional Airport and land holdings that form part of its real estate portfolio. They support local events such as the Olympic Air Show, Summer Splash!, Thurston County Fair, Olympia Brew Fest, Olympia Harbor Days, Oly on Ice, and more.

They also offer public tours to groups, schools and community organizations as well as speakers to neighborhood associations, community or civic groups, professional associations and other special interest groups. Over the past decade, tourism has become a new part of the port’s authority and reach. They work hard through events and outreach activities to bring people to Thurston County and impact the community, says Jennie Foglia-Jones, Port of Port’s senior communications, marketing and government affairs manager. Olympia. However, they have no legal authority over social services and cannot participate in larger social issues that may overlap with their land or buildings.

“Today, ports are the only public bodies whose main objective is economic development, says Foglia-Jones. “The Thurston County Chamber actively spearheaded the campaign to form the Olympia Harbor District 100 years ago and the chamber’s foresight continues to prove fruitful for the community. With strong partners like the Thurston County Chamber and the Thurston Economic Development Board, the Port of Olympia is able to fulfill its mission of being an economic engine for Thurston County.

“The Chamber has always had a historical interest in infrastructure and in 1922 it was all about waterways,” shares David Schaffert, president and CEO of the Thurston County Chamber. “The Chamber actually ceded the land to allow ships in. Since then, the port has been the largest economic development entity in our community.”

1922 newspaper print from the port of Olympia
The first Harbor Commissioners of the 1922s guided regional growth, development and economic beginnings. Photo Courtesy: Port of Olympia

“When you think of our community in 1922,” he continues, “it had just begun to retain state government and to develop railroads, roads and infrastructure for commerce and waterways. It was an inventive time. Our natural resources were a big problem and a big opportunity for Olympia and the region.

The Port and the Chamber continue to have a truly positive relationship even today, Schaffert said. “We are fellow organizations serving development, employment and business opportunities through our shared missions,” he adds.

Thurston Economic Development Council executive director Michael Cade agrees. “Economic development is defined as an alignment of strategic steps and actions to create a quality and dynamic community,” he shares. “We are a relatively young organization compared to the port, we were formed in the mid-1980s, but our lineage is tied to the port.”

Olympia Regional Airport in 1928
Olympia Regional Airport, shown here in 1928, has grown and expanded through air travel and innovation. Photo Courtesy: Port of Olympia

“When it comes to EDC’s county-wide economic development strategy,” continues Cade, “the port plays an important role in that. They are a constant part of our efforts. We work together to coordinate support and I call on the port for help and feedback. There is always a member of the harbor commission on our board of directors.

It makes sense that the Port of Olympia and the EDC of Thurston are so closely linked, given that they both have the same goal in mind, economic development, and the port helps drive it down multiple avenues. . “In any community, there are supporters of economic development and drivers to bring in new investment,” Cade shares. “People forget that the port isn’t just a platform, it helps bring in and move money into the community through salaries, services and tax dollars. The port is truly an economic engine and a support when most industries are only one or the other. It tackles both sides of the spectrum because the dollars are invested locally.

Stay informed of the news of the centenary port via their newsletter, their calendar of events and social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. At 100 years old, Olympia Harbor is more iconic than ever and looks forward to a bright and busy future in and around Thurston County.


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