By Jerome Tuano
The Port of Olympia Commission unanimously approved a 75-year lease with Swire, a Coca-Cola bottler, despite calls from the public for the vote to be postponed during a session on Monday, December 12.
The lease is for 95 hectares of airport land in Tumwater that Swire intends to use for production and warehousing.
Several people requested that the vote at the meeting be postponed because they wanted more time to learn about the deal. Residents like Carla Wulfsberg questioned why the port didn’t schedule a public hearing, especially since the lease is the largest port transaction in history, according to the port’s real estate director, Allyn Roe.
Port Commissioner Joe Downing denied the port was rushing to approve the lease as the agreement was “standard business” for the port.
“It’s a piece of land that we’ve been trying to lease,” Downing said. “We have other properties that we are trying to lease. Some have been successful, some have not.”
“This one falls right into the port’s wheelhouse, I think,” remarked Downing.
Ports Commissioner Amy Evans Harding also supported the agreement, saying she has confidence that Tumwater can accommodate the new site.
“I’ve spoken to Tumwater City Council members who have encouraged the port to allow Tumwater to fulfill its mission of balancing the needs of its entire community,” Evans Harding said, adding, “I believe [Tumwater] will be fair in applying land use regulations to balance the needs of the broader community and continue to hear public concerns.”
Tumwater City Manager, John Doan, attended the meeting and assured that Tumwater has enough water to meet Swire’s needs.
“We have completed a water capital plan for 2021,” Doan said. “It actually projects to 2038 and includes at least one large water customer of that magnitude. We have no question that we could make this amount of water available to this user in our portfolio.”
“We currently use around two thirds of our entire portfolio. Swire would use about a third of that remaining third,” Doan continued.
Mike Bernier, Swire’s sustainability director, added that their company is committed to conserving water resources.
“Our water use has reduced by 20% over the past decade, and we have plans to reduce it by another 20% by 2030,” noted Bernier.
“We give back to the communities in which we operate,” added Bernier. “We aim to return 100% of the water produced in our manufacturing facilities back to nature… Last year we reached 265% of the water we used.”
Plastic pollution, job creation
The public also raised concerns about the bottler’s environmental impact as a plastics manufacturing company.
“The port is committed to the sustainable management of the natural resources that we care for and influence,” said resident Sharon Koontz. “Nothing says more sustainable than, I don’t know, a whole bunch of other plastic islands floating in the ocean killing our marine life.”
Bernier later explained that six of its Washington state manufacturing facilities have a 96% recycling rate. Commissioner Downing said he was confident Swire was committed to reducing plastic pollution.
“I believe that through some of the things that they have said and said on their website, Swire has made a commitment to reduce, recycle and reuse plastic,” Downing said.
Another concern was whether the new site could create 600 new jobs, as both Port and Swire employees claimed. Several people said in public comments that other Swire factories in Washington state average only about 140 employees.
Jennifer Freeman, Swire’s director of public relations and government affairs, admitted they don’t know exactly how many of the 600 positions are new.
“I know people want a specific and direct answer,” Freeman said. “We can’t give concrete answers to these questions unless we do task scoping.”
Steven Segall, vice president of the Thurston-Lewis-Mason Central Labor Council, added that Swire was difficult to work with, according to several Teamstars he spoke to.
“I’ve spoken to representatives from several Teamsters who have contracts with the Swire bottling plants,” he said. “They have stated that Swire is difficult to work with, so much so that a number of complaints have been filed with the National Labor Relations Board.”
While several people opposed the lease, representatives from the Thurston Economic Development Council and the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce supported Swire.
Swire would initially pay $0.041 per square foot per year to obtain Federal Aviation Administration approval and complete a habitat conservation plan.
The lease rate would increase to $0.48 per square foot after Swire begins occupancy of the property, subject to Tumwater approval, or 24 months after Swire approves its habitat preservation plan, whichever comes first.
Once the habitat preservation plan is approved, the port will assist Swire in paying mitigation fees, which would cost Roe an estimated $5.7 million.
Roe said the port expects to make $2 million in annual profits once the lease begins.