EVERETT — A lonely stretch of waterfront has attracted rival suitors — and an aggressive courtship is playing out.
A maritime company wants to buy the former Kimberly-Clark mill site. So does the Port of Everett.
Unusual for a real estate deal, both sides are trying to sway public opinion in their favor. Each has enlisted powerful political backers. There’s been an opinion poll, economic data-crunching and a few recriminations. Both have dangled the prospect of a thousand or more new jobs.
“We have, and will always, have the best interest of the community at heart,” port leadership said in a prepared statement.
The port argues that it’s the best fit for the Navy and overall commerce. Its plan focuses on maritime freight, shipyard capabilities and support for Naval Station Everett.
Former Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson has signed on to work for the other side, a partnership between Pacific Stevedoring and an undisclosed partner. The PacSteve vision would bring two or three corporate headquarters to the site, with warehouses and trucking facilities next to a working wharf.
“This is a great opportunity to grow revenue for the city,” Stephanson said. “You could start to see jobs and redevelopment within the next couple of years.”
A paper and pulp mill operated on the Everett waterfront for roughly 80 years. Kimberly-Clark Corp. acquired the land in the 1980s from the Scott Paper Co. About 700 people lost jobs when the Dallas-based paper products company closed the mill seven years ago.
Demolition reduced all but one large building to rubble, which was spread over the flat ground. The crushed material is now the subject of an environmental cleanup process to address contaminated soil and stormwater issues.
With some small parcels sold or likely to be sold for other uses, about 58 acres remain. It’s bordered by Naval Station Everett to the north and a vacant port-owned shipyard to the south.
Public support or biased poll?
As the sides have pitched their visions for the land, they have tried to discredit the competition.
To lobby on their behalf, the private partners hired Strategies 360, a public affairs consulting firm. The firm brought on Stephanson as a consultant.
“Notwithstanding the Port’s dubious tactics, I strongly believe the vision being pursued for the site by these private sector companies offers a more definable plan that would not only create jobs but provide critically needed revenue for the city of Everett and Snohomish County as a whole,” Stephanson wrote in a March 5 letter to local leaders.
Outreach has included an opinion poll conducted between Feb. 28 and March 4.
“We were curious to know what the taxpayers’ views on the end use of that property would be,” said Austin Hicks, a public affairs manager working on the project. “We thought that was an important piece of the question here.”
The survey asked whether growing Everett’s economy was an urgent priority. Of 427 people queried, 89 percent agreed. When asked whether they would support a Pacific Northwest company relocating its headquarters to the former Kimberly-Clark site, 85 responded favorably. When asked about the port buying the land “for a staging area while the port pursues future plans,” 66 percent were in support.
Compared side by side, the unnamed maritime company bested the port by a 2-1 margin.
Port of Everett officials called the results biased. They said the survey was “being used to politicize” the purchase “to the potential detriment of the current uses surrounding the K-C property.”
“Conducting a one-sided public opinion poll that focuses on a support function of this critical maritime and national defense facility, without taking into consideration the tremendous value this working waterfront has on our overall economy, residents, sailors and on our national security is irresponsible,” port officials said in their statement.
The Navy’s needs
The port proposal aims to boost a waterfront that already exports tens of billions of dollars worth of goods each year. It aims to balance storage, manufacturing and freight with security issues at Naval Station Everett. A major goal is to free up space for a maintenance shipyard that could service the five Navy vessels still homeported in Everett. The shipyard wouldn’t necessarily go on the mill site itself, but on land to the south after existing operations there are relocated.
Shipyard operations in Everett ceased in 2017, when Vigor Marine left.
A study commissioned by the port estimated the proposal would generate 1,236 permanent jobs after 10 years. That’s similar to the 800 to 1,200 jobs the cargo company promises. Within a decade, the study estimated $93 million in yearly earnings from the port’s plan for the Kimberly-Clark property.
The port has been working with U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Washington, to encourage the Coast Guard to station two new offshore patrol cutters at Naval Station Everett. The 360-foot cutters are under construction. They’re expected to enter service in 2025 somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. There’s been no announcement about the exact location.
The naval station’s status has been the source of anxiety in Everett. Earlier this year, the USS Shoup, a destroyer, left for a new home at Naval Base San Diego. Word came last year that Everett would be losing its aircraft carrier. The USS Nimitz is staying in Bremerton, where it has been undergoing years of repairs.
The port contends that the upland maintenance facilities in its plan could keep more military vessels here. Port officials also say they’re the best equipped to meet the Navy’s security requirements for land-side neighbors or marine traffic.
“The Port’s proposal is the only one on the table that ensures compatible land use with Naval Station Everett,” their statement reads.
Stephanson said that’s not true. Under land-use regulations the city adopted for its central waterfront in 2013, any future development has to pass muster with the Navy. Submitting a security and public safety plan to the city is required.
“I think our client has had very positive meetings with the Navy and any security concerns regarding the Navy are being addressed,” he said.
Business and politics
To help buy the site, the port has applied for a $15.5 million federal transportation grant. A decision is expected from Congress by summer.
To make its case for the federal funds, the port sent 35 pages of support letters with its application. They came from local mayors, state and federal officials, the business world, organized labor and higher education leaders.
Some mayors said they were unaware of the competing offer when they lent their support.
Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said he could support either one.
“I believe the private-sector proposal has merit as well,” Nehring said. “I was not aware of that effort when I signed on to the port’s letter.”
Noticeably absent were leaders from Snohomish County or the city of Everett, which support redevelopment but are staying neutral as to who carries it out.
One support letter came from Foss Maritime Co., which operates a Seattle shipyard and maintains a fleet of tugs, barges and other specialty vessels. Its parent company, Saltchuk, appeared to have sewn up a deal for the mill property five years ago, but backed out after due diligence turned up problems with soil stability and environmental conditions.
“Following 36 months of engineering and technical review, we believe the only successful buyer of this strategic, yet challenging waterfront development site, is the Port of Everett,” the company’s support letter reads.
Foss never entirely lost interest.
“If the Port of Everett is successful, we hope to be one of the first maritime partners and future users of the property,” the letter says.
What lies ahead
Stephanson, who retired more than a year ago, recalled the mill closure as “one of the darkest days” in his tenure at the city.
He had high hopes for Saltchuk and remains optimistic about the waterfront’s future.
Over the years, he’s stuck to two main goals: seeing through an environmental cleanup and a new project that would bring back jobs.
Stephanson said his client’s plan would create more opportunities for longshore workers and for trade with Asia.
“Their vision would attract multiple corporate headquarters with roots in the Pacific Northwest and create a distribution center and maritime hub that would service the seafood, shipping and maritime industries,” he wrote in his recent letter to Everett and county officials.
Pacific Stevedoring is a subsidiary of North American Stevedoring, which has operations in Washington, Alaska, the Texas Gulf Coast and the east coast of Canada.
Whatever happens, the company will keep a foothold on the mill property. The company has leased 20 acres of prime waterfront from Kimberly-Clark through a subsidiary, Everett Terminal & Cold Storage. The agreement includes a purchase option that the port or any other future owner would have to honor. Everett Terminal has submitted a project application to Everett that would include a cold-storage facility, offices and a rail spur on the 20 acres.
The company and its undisclosed partner report lining up private-sector financing and cash to close a deal for the larger site.
Before anything new gets built, there’s an old mess to clean up. The legacy of pollution where the mill once stood includes metals, petroleum products and chemical compounds known as PCBs.
The state Department of Ecology and the city of Everett are overseeing efforts to remove crushed building materials, plug old pipes that send stormwater offshore, and remove polluted soil. That work is expected to start later this year.