New commissioner highlights symbiotic relationship between marine trades and port infrastructure

Petranek: Community input can help solve port problems


The boatyard feels like home for new Port Commissioner Pam Petranek.

That’s because it was her home for nearly 10 years.

“I lived on my sailboat raising my children the first few years of living here,” she said.

Petranek and her family lived on a sailboat on temporary moorage at first, switching back and forth between being moored at the Boat Haven marina and Point Hudson.

Now, when Petranek walks through the boatyard, she knows nearly everyone by name. When she stops at Sunrise Coffee during the mid-morning work break—when crews working on boats all over the yard stop to line up for a cup of something warm—she takes the opportunity to meet people she hasn’t met yet, to catch up with those she’s known for years, or just to wave hello to an old friend passing by. And when the wind blows 40 miles an hour, whistling through the masts on boats in the marina, she braves the weather to take a walk on the linear dock, just to catch an exhilarating glimpse of the waves crashing on the rocks of the breakwater and to smell the cold, salty air of the place she loves.

And now that she has had her first few weeks as the newest elected member of the Port of Port Townsend’s three-person commission, Petranek still believes that her “office” is out in the yard, even though she has to spend more and more time indoors
in meetings.

“I need three desks,” she joked, feeling a bit like she has been drinking from a fire hose in her first few weeks. Not only is Petranek the first woman to ever sit at the port commission table in Port Townsend history, but she is also jumping in to the role amidst a mile-long “to do” list for the port.

Her first week included at least three executive sessions as the port commissioners worked to narrow down 45 port director candidates to four, and then to one.

Now, the commission will begin working on a “comprehensive scheme of harbor improvements,” to nail down how the port can preserve important infrastructure, like the 80-year-old Point Hudson jetty.

On top of that, the commission will have to decide how to use newly acquired funds from a voter-passed levy, which could acquire up to $15 million in funding over the next 20 years.

There is an overwhelming amount of work to be done. But when it seems like it might be too much, Petranek reminds herself that she’s not alone and that the port itself is to serve “We the people.”

“I’ll repeat that in my head sometimes,” she said. “I’ll say, ‘We the people, we the people, we the people.’”

Remembering that she is backed up by a community of skilled craftsmen, fishermen and boaters, Petranek said she doesn’t feel any different now that she is sitting at the commissioners’ table.

“Becoming a commissioner is a transition that feels aligned with being a citizen advocate,” she said. “I saw how the port was our public investment and community asset; how we own it and it is our responsibility to participate in the direction of how it serves ‘we the people.’”

Jumping into life as a commissioner was easy, considering Petranek had already been attending port meetings for the past four years.

She and her partner Rick, who operate Cape Cleare Fishery, had made a deal one year while working on their boat: no matter how much work was to be done, at least one of them would take the time to attend each and every port meeting.

“Now that I am sitting at the table, I realize even more how vital the connection needs to be between the elected officials and the community it represents,” she said. “The public ‘title’ is also like a ticket for more streamlined access to other electeds, organizations, and our community. It helps make me more approachable and helps me do the same with others.”

Her game plan for the upcoming year is “approachability.” The first thing she argued for as an official commissioner is for the commission to bring back a second public comment period at their regular business meetings.

In previous years, the port allowed public comment at the beginning and end of meetings. But the practice had changed recently to only allow comments at the beginning. Petranek brought up the issue with the other two commissioners, Pete Hanke and Bill Putney, in the hopes of changing that.

“A second public comment period can be an opportunity for the public to listen to a full discussion by staff and commission first, and then weigh in or add to something that was overlooked,” she said. “It can be an opportunity to contribute to sharing work in progress towards future actions, giving more time for consideration. I’d like the opportunity to listen to our community, before and after commission discussion or actions.”

Going forward into her first year as commissioner, Petranek is going to rely on the community around her to work together to solve many of the port’s problems, like fixing the failing infrastructure, which she says is one of her top priorities.

“The trades and the port depend on each other’s success, it is a symbiotic relationship, and the impact reaches beyond the waterfront to serve the whole community,” she said.

This relationship is obvious when you look at the port’s numbers for the past year, she said. Work at Boat Haven is booming, with a record number of haulouts this past year.

Three years ago, the haulout rate hit an all time low, with 676 total in 2017, as yard rates were being raised significantly. In 2019, there were 758 haulouts, contributing to a record year for boat yard revenues.

The change is visible: The Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-op signed a new lease with the port this month, exchanging land to expand their footprint for working on boats. Meanwhile, Haven Boatworks has a line-up of boats in front of their shop, displaying a busy work year.

Petranek attributes this success to the port staff and commissioners working together with people in the marine trades. The interim executive director, Jim Pivarnik, has made a habit of attending meetings of the Port Townsend Marine Trades Association and another smaller working group of marine trade businesspeople. Petranek hopes the new executive director will do the same.

At a port meeting on Jan. 8, port commissioners discussed the port’s organizational structure and staff. Sketched out, it looks like a top down structure, with the executive director overseeing the rest of the port’s staff. But it doesn’t have to operate like that, deputy director Eric Toews was quick to point out.

“The most important thing is that we operate as a team,” he said at the meeting.