Reforms making a difference at Fort Worden, PDA director says

Organization moving toward stability; challenges remain

PORT TOWNSEND — The Fort Worden Public Development Authority has made progress in reforming the troubled organization, but leaders said there’s still more work to be done.

“What the PDA was prior to February 2022 is not what the PDA is after February 2022,” said Celeste Tell, interim executive director of the PDA, who spoke to the Port Townsend City Council on Monday night.

Fort Worden has been struggling economically for years and many of those problems were made worse when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the tourism industry. Last summer, the city council — which has partial oversight over the PDA — considered taking corrective action but instead signed a memorandum of agreement with the PDA, pledging improvements to their governance and structure.

Tell delivered the PDA’s annual report for 2023 on Monday, part of the MOA, during which she said the organization was moving toward more stable ground.

“In general, we are complying with everything we agreed to comply with,” Tell said. “It’s been a year of change, it’s been a year of transition, it’s been a little crunchy, but we’re still here.”

Among the progress made was better communication and coordination between the various organizations that operate out of the fort’s buildings, Tell said.

She said when she came on as director, there were tensions and frustrations between many of the organizations — many of whom are nonprofits competing for the same funding opportunities — and a sense that one group’s success came at another’s expense.

“We had to change the conversation to something that said, ‘No, that’s just not how it’s going to work. There’s no I survive at the expense of you, it’s about the fort,’” Tell said.

One of the major issues the fort had been facing is an inability to collect utility reimbursement from the various tenant organizations, Tell said. Fort Worden’s buildings and infrastructure are old and outdated, and meters had previously been asked to pay utilities by square footage, something which didn’t accurately reflect their utility usage.

Tell said the PDA came up with a model for utility reimbursement and the organization is now collecting about 100 percent of utility costs.

The PDA also received about $1 million in capital and operating expenses from the state Parks and Recreation Commission, something Tell said was likely to be a one-time event.

But the PDA still has about $6.2 million in debt, and it ended 2023 with only $317,931 in cash.

The PDA has partnered with the city and is using losing tax dollars to hire a consultant for an economic impact study, something Tell said would help bring in additional revenues.

“We’ve been unable to really tap into big money, especially big state, federal and private money,” Tell said. “(Consultants) felt that an economic impact study could be the key that would be able to unlock some of those funds.”

The PDA’s current business model is not financially sustainable, Tell said, but leadership is willing to consider all options.

“What we said to the consultant is, ‘Nothing is off the table,’” Tell said, “‘If the PDA is not the right organization, we’re good with that.’”

Port Townsend Mayor David Faber thanked the PDA for its work and asked Tell and board members to return in June to discuss future plans for Fort Worden.

“You folks at the PDA have been putting in some really heroic efforts for a while now to deal with some of the mess of the past,” Faber said. “I think it bears repeating what you said, ‘the PDA is not what it was.’ We’re in a different world today.”

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Reporter Peter Segall can be reached by email at peter.segall@peninsulanews.us.

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