If the Port of Chehalis’s bread and butter is industrial development and warehouse distribution, then helping out small businesses is its jam.
That is, at least, according to port CEO Randy Mueller, who has been at the helm of the Port of Chehalis since 2014. Case in point: the Pemerl Building, which hosts multiple small businesses.
“Since our inception here, the bread and butter for the Port of Chehalis has really been industrial development, manufacturing, warehouse distribution. And, over the last seven years, if there’s a common theme, it’s probably been us trying to expand the boundaries of what is economic development and community building in Chehalis,” he said.
During his tenure, Mueller helped steer the port toward service that is more diverse in its offerings, more focused on the future and small businesses, while improving on its financial and organizational health.
But the port soon will enter into a new era of leadership.
In a June 22 guest commentary in The Chronicle, Mueller publicly announced his plans to depart from the port later this year in order to “pursue new opportunities.” His last day is Nov. 30.
“As a former Centralia kid who moved back to Lewis County after 23 years away, coming home for the last seven years in this job has been the greatest experience. I am incredibly proud of the things our port team has accomplished during that time, and confident that I am handing over management of a port that is in great shape. Not only in a financial sense but also organizationally, culturally and ethically,” he wrote.
“Ports can do really positive things for their communities, and I am excited to see where my successor and the rest of the port team go from here,” he added.
Senior Port Commissioner Mark Giffey said in an email the port is sad to see Mueller go and that they will miss his leadership in making Chehalis and Lewis County a better place to work and live.
“Randy firmly grasped the commission's philosophy that our community will accomplish more by developing strong partnering relationships with other agencies focused on a similar purpose, particularly the City of Chehalis, Lewis County, Chehalis Industrial Commission, Lewis County EDC and Chehalis Renaissance Team,” Giffey wrote. “He is skilled with understanding. His role as CEO of the port is to implement plans and goals for the commission while also offering sound guidance in that process.”
The board has known of Mueller’s departure for many months now and there have been rumblings in the community for perhaps just as long about his departure. The port commission will choose Mueller’s successor and will begin a discussion on the timeline at its next meeting on Thursday.
Mueller was originally hired on as the Port of Chehalis’ CEO in June 2014, having previously served as the director of business development at the Port of Ridgefield in Clark County, where he worked in property acquisition, negotiating legal agreements and submitting grant applications, according to previous Chronicle articles. Prior to that, he worked as a self-employed community development consultant.
Speaking to The Chronicle on Tuesday, Mueller said the last seven years in Lewis County have been filled with remarkable growth and new opportunities.
“We’ve had a number of great successes. We had our biggest grant ever with a $3 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. We did our biggest project ever, which was the development of our Maurin Road industrial site. We built our first new building in 20 years, which was great,” he said.
During that time, stimulanting local business growth became a focal point of the port’s work with the opening of the Pemerl Building and the opening a few years ago of the Chehalis Coworks program, alongside the Chehalis Community Renaissance Team, for “solopreneurs, laptop hobos, remote workers and anyone who relishes the synergy of working independently,” the program’s website reads.
Mueller said Chehalis Coworks was the first port-owned coworking facility in the state. It was also a game-changer for internet-reliant solo workers who may not have a stable internet connection.
“That was something we could really do to boost entrepreneurialism and small business,” he said.
Within the last year, the port also helped local vegetable farmers transition into growing malting barley for export after their frozen foods supply chain suddenly ruptured. Roughly 620 tons of local grain was exported last year and Mueller expects that to nearly double this year.
Now, roughly 450 acres are being used to grow the crop that wasn’t being grown there before.
Another exciting prospect? Hydrogen. The Port of Chehalis is providing land to bring the state’s first renewable hydrogen fueling station to Chehalis.
“A small hydrogen fueling station is not going to turn the economy around, but if we do this right you could see something hydrogen commercial fueling like something on the scale of the Loves truck stop,” he said.
Mueller said they also want to leverage that project into something greater.
“It’s one thing to have a fuel station to fuel a couple hydrogen buses. But if we can combine that with electric car charging and the big bump chargers for the big, commercial electric vehicles … then suddenly that’s not just a hydrogen pump, we’re talking about an industrial park,” he said.
The port also had a big win earlier this year when McCallum Rock Drilling made a long-term commitment to do business in the area with the port’s largest-ever property sale. According to Mueller, the company plans on doubling its workforce there over the next few years. It’s a win they’d like to see play out with the Costco logistic center project, which was put on pause earlier this year due to costs associated with leveling out the land.
The port is in consideration with several other sites at the moment, he said.
Mueller said there hasn’t been one job in particular he’s been most proud of. Instead, he said, “It’s the organizational work we’ve done, the team we’ve built, the folks we’ve hired — those are the things I’m really proud of.”