As I sat down to interview Port of Bellingham candidate Renata Kowalczyk, it immediately became clear: Renata is by far one of the most enthusiastic and articulate candidates I have interviewed. Over the next hour, she effortlessly wove together commentary on the limitations of the port as a government entity, her own personal history growing up in Poland, the historical role of ports in terms of promoting peace and how 3D printing is going to revolutionize industrial manufacturing, all of this punctuated by her blunt and distinctive sense of humor.
Renata, the single name candidate as she likes to refer to herself, is running for the port commissioner seat vacated by Scott Walker’s retirement this year. My first question, as always, is why is she running. “Recently, I’ve been giving the answers that come from the head; I moved downtown and kept looking at the waterfront and wondering what is happening there and how it could really be a thriving part of our county’s economic development. I wanted to serve my community, this is my home. I looked at my set of skills and unique perspectives, here’s someone who spent time in financial services as a change agent, I have my MBA and all that.” Renata draws a deep breath before sipping her coffee as we sit in the Woods downtown.
“But those are all head answers. They are all true, but there’s also a heart answer, a heart answer about what I believe ports are all about. Ports exist to connect. We don’t have to go to 1911 and the Port Act that Washington state in its infinite wisdom had put together, you can go back even farther.” See, I told you history would be involved.
“If you go back to the history of mankind, ports served as a connection point between buyers and sellers, they served as a connection point between cultures. For instance, fruits and herbs and vegetables spread because people put them on boats and look, now we have potatoes!” She cracks a big smile.
“Ports mean things to people. It is your port of call, coming home to safety. If I look at the answer from my heart, ports are all about connections and thriving as a result of that connections, either economically, socially, culturally. My life’s work is about connection.”
Renata’s work experience is pretty broad. In the past she has been in financial services. She spoke about working on a project with JP Morgan where the bank was deciding what to do with a large company with five locations and 2,000 employees. “I would lay everything out on the table and do a cost benefit analysis, looking for the benefit for the employees, look for the benefit for the bottom line, looking for the benefit of the bank, looking at all the options.”
Currently, she works as a business consultant, helping local small businesses access resources they didn’t know they had. “I help them work out where they want to be in the one year, then three years or five years. I help them look at where they are now and the gap in between, we look at all the resources that they already have and resources they need.”
She shared an example from a recent client who needed some extra cash to grow their business. “I would never take things at face value. Let’s go on a treasure hunt! Let’s look into your business and see if there is something in your business that you are not using. They may have assets they are not using, so I am connecting two needs that need to be met.”
Beyond her experience, Renata was eager to discuss her plans for the waterfront. “My dream is to use the waterfront to connect our glorious past with a wonderful future. We have incredible resources and industries that sustain us; fishing, marine trades, agriculture – that’s our past, we need to preserve them and make it stronger.” Renata gave a boisterous grin, thumping her fist onto the table.
“As for our wonderful future, how can this waterfront be a source of good jobs, not just basic level jobs but high paying jobs? There are new types of manufacturing, think about 3D printing. That’s where its going. We are going to need skilled labor, and we are going to need developers and programmers who do 3D C.A.D. drawing.” C.A.D. stands for computer aided drawing and is the technical skill needed to develop programs for 3D printing. Western Washington University is already training students in this technology and 3D printers can be found in Bellingham High School. Renata points out that manufacturing will need to be a component of any working waterfront and the port is the key vehicle to help make that happen.
Do you feel the port and the city are on the right track or the wrong track with the Waterfront plan? ”It’s okay but it can be made smarter. I want to make sure that in this plan that we are definitely protecting marine trades. I know (the plans) are conceptual, and I’ve seen some responses that incorporate the whole marine trade area. I just want to make sure that we support what is already there. There are seventy some companies at the wharf, and they do a tremendous job for us for clean economic development.
Where is the Port really missing the ball? Renata thought for a moment and told me about a meet-and-greet in Lynden. “A woman there asked me a question that I loved, it was straight to the point. ‘What has the port done for the Lynden community lately?’ Some day I hope to be able to answer that question with a long list, right now . . .” She made a zero with her fingers and gave a hefty sigh.
On an unrelated note, I asked Renata her opinion of Rob Fix, the port’s executive director. “I’ve been asking businesses and they seem to be appreciating his work, he understands the business.” She smiled graciously. “He made himself very much available to the candidates to answer questions. From the outside, looking in, he seems to be doing a good job.”
On the political side, Renata recently made waves when she received almost identical scores as her conservative opponent from the local Tea Party. How does she credit this cross-partisan appeal? “I think there are a few reasons. I am really committed to connecting to people, and listening to understand what their points of view are. I also believe they connect with my life story, my commitment to freedom and opportunities, coming to America and leaving the oppressive economic and political system behind so I can create a life here.”
As we wrap up the interview, she closes with a simple pledge. “I made a commitment when I moved to Bellingham – I decided to spent my next forty years of my life helping people get connected and creating thriving communities. What vehicles or offices are the best way to contribute to that place, it’s the port.”