One incumbent will retain his seat on the Port of Umatilla board of commissioners come next month’s county-wide elections, while another has work still ahead to win a second term.

Longtime Commissioner Jerry Simpson, 60, is running unopposed for the position, all but guaranteeing re-election for the eighth time.

John Turner, outgoing president of Blue Mountain Community College, faces a challenge from local businessman Eli Stephens in the board’s only other contested race.

All commission seats are at-large and non-partisan.

Turner, 59, came to Pendleton in 2003 after a 28-year career with the U.S. Marine Corps, retiring as colonel. He joined BMCC as executive vice president and provost, and was appointed president of the school in 2005.

Four years later, Turner won his first term as port commissioner. The move was a natural fit, he said, as the college works to prepare students for new jobs ultimately created by industries in the port.

“The port has a pretty good idea of what businesses are trying to locate in northeast Oregon,”?Turner said. “The college has a mission of workforce development to meet the needs of those employers.”

Turner is seeking re-election to continue working toward economic development in the county, he said. In particular, he mentioned getting more municipal water rights for Columbia River water to area farmers, and further promoting barge traffic to higher reaches of the river.

The port must also provide land that businesses need to locate in Umatilla County, Turner said.

“These are issues that are not solved easily,”?he said. “It helps to have somebody with experience working on them.”

But Stephens, 57, believes he has the fresh perspectives needed to help the port run more efficiently and help businesses expand — while cutting through some of the government red tape.

Stephens, who currently runs a real estate business in Pendleton with his wife, Lavonne, said his background in private enterprise gives him an understanding what it takes to run a company, and what industries need to do business.

“We have enough raw material to bring in the right type of growth for good family-wage jobs,”?Stephens said. “How can we capture that raw material we have??That’s what we need to do.”

Like Turner, Stephens served in the military, spending five years in the U.S. Navy as a machinist’s mate. He came to Pendleton in 1999 after buying Floyd’s Truck Ranch off Interstate 84.

That business shut down in 2002, and Stephens has since been self-employed. Serving on the port commission would let him “stir some thought processes,”?he said, and bring up a different point of view.

“Instead of repeating the same mistakes because everybody else did things a certain way, I?do it right,”?Stephens said. “Is the glass half-empty or half-full??Maybe we should look at the glass. Maybe it’s too big.”

Simpson, a farmer with 2,500 acres near Pendleton, has spent 28 years on the Port of Umatilla Commission. In 2005, he became the longest-serving commissioner in the Port’s history.

Over that time, Simpson said he’s learned what projects are likely the most profitable and feasible for the community. Expansion of existing businesses are typically a safer bet than start-ups, he said, although any company with stable finances has a chance to be successful.

Even after nearly three decades, Simpson said there is always some interesting project or issue at the point that keeps him coming back for service. Not unexpectedly, water rights out of the Columbia River top the farmer’s list of concerns.

“We have an untapped source of agriculture there. We have to do a little bit better with that,”?Simpson said.

The county elections are Tuesday, May 21. Ballots will be mailed out May 3.

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-564-4547.

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