Mark Urdahl

Life after decades of public service
Mark Urdahl in his office at the end of 2016. Gary Bégin/WBJ
"It is highly unlikely BNSF will move their main rail yard to Malaga."

He sat in his office, walls bare, pondering his future. A sense of sadness and shock at how it feels to face the end of a long journey was off and on his face. It permeated his demeanor when he let it, but all in all he seemed satisfied with a lifetime's worth of accomplishments to look back on. The former Executive Director of the Port District of Chelan County  - Mark Urdahl  - has a lot of life left in him, but first he must decide which direction, if any, he'll be going. Ride a motorcycle around the country? Maybe. Visit exotic locales and search for unique culture? Maybe. Volunteer to help the mentally ill? Another possibility.

His beloved Green Bay Packers' memorabilia is safe back at home now, but Wisconsin is still in his future. "I'm going to spend some time in northeastern Wisconsin and reconnect with some old friends." That was one of the only items on a bucket list Urdahl cared to specifically mention because the rest he knows not.

He grew up and still is "proudly middle class" and the son of a blue collar man, third generation Norwegian. That working class spirit has kept him grounded all these many years working under many different Port District of Chelan County commissioners. He, like all good soldiers, points to commissioner leadership as the reason he went in whatever direction he went in. "I did not make the policy," he states succinctly, but he was the trusted guide, helping those elected by the people to serve the people. It wasn't always easy.

"Everyone wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die to get there," Urdahl states about the harsh facts that often get in the way of dreamers and their dreams being actualized. 

He no longer has to look to elected officials for guidance. He can say what he wants, do what he wants, go where he wants. No more "clock to punch" for this thoughtful man who is able to balance compassion with reality now in a more relaxed way without the constraints of state, county and local law forcing his official hand towards one policy or another.

One thing he does want is a safe world for his three grandchildren to grow up in. Another possibility may be to visit South America. Urdahl is able to kick back now and ponder these scenarios or take action, sleep-in or jump up and "run-with-it." 

The 64-tear-old admits he must first "detox from his career." He looks forward to visiting his hometown of 9,000 souls to enjoy the arts and other cultural vibes that sets it apart from Wenatchee and the rest of America. Ideally, Urdahl would love to find other parts of the country that have also maintained unique cultural venues, customs and practices not homogenized like much of the nation.

Eventually, when he gets to it, Urdahl might become a local volunteer in an organization having something to do with mental health or "work" somewhere in the human services area. 

Regarding the ambitious "Our Valley, Our Future" menu of potential changes to the Wenatchee Valley, Urdahl politely calls the massive project "well intentioned, but there are tradeoffs." He cites culture again. "All municipalities express different values and visions" and said one reason the Port of Chelan as a governmental organization did not jump in to the OVOF idea with both feet is because the "Port is countywide and needs to have a vision for all of the county, not just the city of Wenatchee."

Urdahl recognizes reality and perhaps that is why he managed to survive under so many different leaders and styles over the years as he pursued what was best for all the people and not just a few "elites." He cited the danger of the "slippery slope towards narcissism" in the OVOF plans while acknowledging consolidation of some public services would be a good thing. "Enhanced regional cooperation between jurisdictions," according to the Civil War history aficionado, is a good thing, but it is highly unlikely, for example, that "BNSF (railroad) will move their main rail yard to Malaga" from its current Wenatchee location where it occupies prime real estate.  

There it is again, reality. "Consolidation makes sense, but how does it get done?," pondered Urdahl. 

Patrick Jones, Urdahl's replacement who started last month, is compared by Urdahl to the characters in the 1970s sitcom The Odd Couple. Felix (Patrick) was a prim, fastidious, photographer while Oscar (Mark) was a gruff, sloppy sportswriter. Jones, who has been in the port consulting business and also previously an executive director for many years, will most likely follow Urdahl's example and be a consensus builder. Urdahl jokes that a standing point of amusement in the Port of Chelan offices over the years goes like this: "Mark which commissioner is your favorite?" ...To which Urdahl would respond, "the one I'm with right now." 

He has his own ideas and hasn't always been able to express them out loud because of the sensitivity of being a civil servant. One such thought sounds simple, but reveals a much deeper societal understanding than many of the programs government workers must espouse in order to show a positive face towards the voters. On the surface it may sound cold-hearted or judgmental, but as usual, pragmatism is at the forefront.

"Not everybody's kid should go to college or work in fast food," Urdahl states.

He points to the establishment of Wenatchee Technical College (WTC) as an achievement for the betterment of the community and furthering of that idea. A sort of tightrope act between the blacks and whites of one extreme or the other.

"Public-private partnerships," Urdahl said, are what makes some projects successful, such as the initial establishment of WTC and the visionary Pybus Market project. Urdahl was always looking for the public benefit and forced every project to come under intense scrutiny on a case by case basis.

Like a carefully choreographed dance, the public-private arena is "a constant struggle between the regulator and the regulated party," he said. Getting the Port of Chelan involved in certain projects means there was a "reasonable rationale" for the regulation and the problem it may solve. Urdahl spoke about "yardsticks" and "in practical terms" and applying basic criteria to many potential community programs and wannabe programs.

"Affordability" was another key term used by Urdahl during the generous, nearly two hour discussion with the Wenatchee Business Journal. He felt talking to the press was his obligation as a public servant even though other "public servants" regularly ignore such requests or put them off for months at a time.

"The pendulum swings back and forth," he said in regards to potential consequences when applying regulations and offering cooperation by the Port on behalf of the people it serves. Another major project Urdahl was in on from the start and which he followed through to completion, besides Pybus and the WTC, was the Confluence Technology Center. "The Port doesn't create jobs, but facilities and infrastructure, if we see a benefit to the business community. Private businesses create jobs."

Urdahl credits much of his success over the years to networking with the other 68 port districts in the state constantly getting helpful ideas and making important personal contacts with the other executives and commissioners. He also enjoyed relationships with many chambers of commerce and traveling around the state seeing how other communities handled their projects, always looking for "best practices where and when I can."

As one of his parting insights, Urdahl thinks the current situation with the seaplane company on Lake Chelan would make an excellent case study. "Can the public entity help? Maybe it can't. Will the service go away? What level of participation is right?" Questions Urdahl can now muse on as a private taxpayer.

Perhaps he is most proud of the fact that during his long tenure at the helm of an agency which funneled millions of dollars to the public and private partnership concept is the "conscious choice to do complicated projects."

To punctuate that point and as a culminating exclamation to his career, he announced the real estate closing of the $1.5 million deal with Bill and Jan Goebel on part of the old Peshastin Mill site which will make that parcel into a winery, some green space and potentially other uses. The deal was in the works for a long time, but it fittingly ended with the official closing of the deal at the end of 2016. Amtrak service to Leavenworth is another jewel, the gem set by plans of the past coming to fruition.

Urdahl, smiling frequently during the interview, said it was the way the port was meant to work. "We invest then divest. It was always a challenge to find the appropriate balance for the port to stay sustainable. Getting from A to B. What was the appropriate role for the port to play? When does the incubation period for a new business end?"

Philosophy, reality and a dose of future optimism peppered his own life plans as well as that of the community he has faithfully served. "We need to rally around achievements that are doable. I'd like to see community visions grounded more in reality. Identify where the funding will be coming from," cautions Urdahl about any plans for the Wenatchee Valley, a place he loves and plans to stay in.

"Wenatchee makes a great base camp. It's close to a lot of things, but far enough away at the same time." However Urdahl is suspect of any major efforts at over-development. "Large amounts of people change the character of an area. People like sprawling homes and big yards, but to fit more people into places for them to live means lifestyles may have to change," he said. 

He noted the extreme shortage of affordable housing and said that Wenatchee itself was a "land poor area" and "repurposing existing space" is the way to handle future growth. Urdahl understands the challenges of this area as only one who has been intimately involved with studying them can. Combining ports, cities, school districts and making decisions for the overall good of not just Wenatchee, but addressing the entire Chelan-Douglas county area, is what he feels is most important.

Ever the pragmatist, he acknowledges future government actions based on quasi-governmental initiatives depend on a basic truth: Any merging of entities "must be approved by the voters of both counties. That includes dealing with the pre-existing debts." 

Ever the collaborator, Urdahl states that cooperation between Douglas and Chelan port districts will eliminate duplicate inventory. As far as the future of the youngest among us, Urdahl advises young folks to "get a good solid fundamental education." He himself, will never stop learning. That's what he will really be doing no matter what he actually does - learning.

Urdahl, an "introvert by nature," is looking forward to visiting more Civil War battlefields, digging-in to his "long reading list," which includes history, fiction and an exploration of different religions. The man whose entire professional adult life was highly regulated has now embarked on a great "ad-lib" mystery, even to himself.

"I think I'll take a fresh look around," he concluded.

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