In the 54-year history of the Tri-City Development Council, just two people have led efforts to keep federal dollars coming to the Tri-City community for national projects, from the environmental cleanup of Hanford to cutting-edge science at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
First there was Sam Volpentest, sometimes called the godfather of Tri-City economic development.
The second was Gary Petersen.
But today, weather permitting, Petersen, 76, likely will be on a golf course.
He has retired after serving as the TRIDEC vice president, focusing on federal programs, since 2004. His successor is expected to be named Wednesday at TRIDEC’s annual meeting.
While perhaps not a household name for many, Petersen is well-known where it’s helpful — in the offices of those who represent the Tri-Cities in Washington, D.C. The federal government spends about $3.4 billion annually in the area.
“His knowledge of the issues, his candor and his perseverance have earned him the ear and respect of D.C. decision makers, regardless of their party,” said Jerry Holloway, a former employee of Petersen and now a communications manager for Hanford contractor Washington River Protection Solutions.
He was very, very effective.
Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., retired
His retirement prompted floor speeches in the U.S. House and Senate.
“Mr. Petersen has been critical to my work in the United States Senate and has made a tremendous impact on the Tri-Cities community, Washington state and our nation,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., in her speech.
Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., called Petersen a friend in his speech on the floor of the House and said Petersen’s work has been critical to the Tri-Cities’ growth and development.
“He was very, very effective,” said retired Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
One project Petersen has worked on resulted in DOE returning 1,614 acres of unused Hanford land just north of Richland to the Tri-Cities for economic development.
He collaborated with other advocates for the creation of the new Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which includes Hanford’s historic B Reactor.
He was an early supporter of saving the stone Bruggemann warehouse, and brought the family evicted from the Bruggemann ranch back to see it for the first time since the property was seized in 1943 for a secret military project. The warehouse has been included in the new national park.
He knows the budget as well as any staff member on the Appropriations Committee.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
As budgets for Hanford cleanup were developed each year, he was a voice for the community in the nation’s capital, talking about what work the community considered most important at the nuclear reservation.
“He knows the budget as well as any staff member on the Appropriations Committee, and this isn’t just limited to nuclear waste cleanup, but also includes research and development capabilities that support the PNNL mission, transportation, agriculture and so much more,” Murray said.
He’s worked for federal money for new buildings to modernize the PNNL campus in Richland.
But lobbying was less than 20 percent of his job. If it was good for the Tri-Cities economy, it interested Petersen.
He advocated to increase work for small local businesses at Hanford, to save the Snake River dams, for access to the top of Rattlesnake Mountain, for historical markers for Richland’s “alphabet homes,” and for local interests in the Columbia River Treaty with Canada.
Petersen joined TRIDEC in 2004 after his first retirement.
He had worked for PNNL as its director of communications and manager of its International Nuclear Safety Program Information Office, among other jobs through the years.
Petersen had done volunteer work for TRIDEC for years when Volpentest recruited him as a part-time employee. Volpentest, then 99, had doctors objecting to his flights back and forth to D.C. and wanted to send Petersen on those trips.
Petersen had the knowledge of PNNL and Hanford to communicate technical issues to audiences from Congress to the media, said Carl Adrian, TRIDEC president.
Gary, were there ever any alligators at Hanford?
Frequent Hanford tour prompt
“Gary is the premier Hanford tour guide,” Adrian said.
Those who knew his tours would give him a prompt if the tour was wrapping up and he had not told one of his best stories.
“Gary, were there ever any alligators at Hanford?” Adrian would ask.
In the early 1960s, radiation research was being done at Hanford using alligators, picked for their thick skin.
During a major storm, they escaped from their pen along the Columbia River. One of the six escapees was caught by a fisherman in Ringold, who had trouble getting anyone to believe him until he took it to a taxidermist, Petersen said.
The alligator, which was a couple of feet long, was displayed at a local sports shop until Hanford officials confiscated it.
Your absence will be felt.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
Petersen became involved when he took a job at what is now Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, working there initially from 1965 to 1971. The lab was in charge of animal research and Petersen’s boss told him it was time that the government gave the alligator back.
“Last October, when I had the good fortune to get one more tour with Mr. Petersen at the Hanford Site, I saw that he still carried the same enthusiasm and pride for his work as what I’d seen in him on my very first tour years ago,” Murray said.
Petersen plans to do some consulting work and keep his hand in a few projects, in addition to improving his golf game and spending more time with his grandchildren and wife of nearly 50 years during retirement.
But he will no longer be such a familiar presence in Washington, D.C.
“Your absence will be felt,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.