LONGVIEW — Jennifer Keene jokingly compares her ambitions for growing the Port of Woodland to “The Simpson’s” character C. Montgomery Burns, who is infamous for sinister plots to amass wealth and power.
“Every single night I think, ‘How do I take over the world?’ ” Keene quips.
For Keene, “taking over the world” involves transforming the sleepy little Lower Columbia port into a dynamic engine for economic growth.
In her first 18 months as Port of Woodland’s executive director, she’s well on her way to ushering in that transition. Since 2013, the port’s revenue has grown from a little less than $1 million to a projected $1.8 million next year by boosting sales of dredge spoils, renegotiating leases and attracting new tenants to port property. The port is in talks with a bulk commodity client who has expressed preliminary interest in Austin Point, where the port owns an undeveloped 200-acre parcel with deep-water access.
Keene’s impatience for change can cause her to step on some toes, and her friends joke that her curly red hair is a physical marker of her fiery personality.
Her laugh-at-life humor has helped in her first several chaotic months as executive director. The 39-year old single mother previously was a grant writer for the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Council of Governments. She had little background in the port industry. She came aboard just before an extensive audit was due to take place and after the port had been without an executive director for two months after Nelson Holmberg left.
“Everything was going crazy. … I walked in, we had no Internet, our website was crashed and I was working off of Nelson’s email, and his computer had crashed,” Keene recalled. The port’s new jobs creation effort “had fallen flat”, Keene said, and the organization hadn’t put up a new building since 2008, in spite of customers’ demands.
“There was no clear direction of where we were going,” Keene said. “Without that, you’re literally running a boat and being pulled in different directions. Everybody has got a hand on the steering wheel and is turning it different ways.”
“Where we saw the other ports starting to come out the recession, guns blazing … we were not feeling that and (the question was), why not? What are we doing that’s not creating this kind of energy?”
Keene consulted port directors from across the region, sometimes spending hours in conferences with Mark Wilson, executive director of the Port of Kalama, whom she calls her “Obi-wan Kenobi” mentor.
The timing was perfect to ask “big picture” questions because the Woodland port commissioners were creating a new comprehensive plan. Those discussions lead to a mission statement with a sharper focus on economic development. As part of that shift, commissioners put the $4.2 million Martin Bar boat launch project on hold indefinitely, so the port can instead focus on Austin Point and on engineering the $5 million, 15-acre Guild Road Industrial Park.
Longtime Port of Woodland Commissioner Dale Boon says Keene is sparking a more aggressive approach for attracting tenants.
“We’ve been pretty conservative, but I think our commission is taking a different approach and realizing that we don’t get anywhere without being aggressive,” Boon said.
The port has added two new businesses to its roster in the last year and, as of mid-December, was up to 18 tenants. Between its new and old tenants, there are 350 jobs tied to the port, up by at least 50 jobs compared to 2014. Still, Boon said, Keene had to learn that not every business that comes knocking will drop an anchor there. “You get a lot of tire kickers.”
Keene said her action-oriented mind caused her “to overstep her bounds” a few times when she first started the job. For example, she pushed commissioners to purchase property for a new port office, which commissioners did not want to rush into.
“I’ve learned, over the last few months, to allow commissioners to do what they were elected to do, rather than trying to push them. … That balance has been difficult,” she said.
Wilson said Keene’s humor will serve her well as the port continues to grow, gaining both admirers and critics.
“She has a lot of courage and she’s not afraid to just wade into anything. … She may ruffle a few feathers because she’s pushing the agenda of the port, but that comes with the job,” Wilson said. “Anytime you’re making a change, there are going to be people that don’t necessarily like that vision, and so you have to have a little bit of a thick skin.”