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updated 2:54 PM UTC, Jul 28, 2018

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McKibbon's plane-crash death left hole for Vancouver community he focused on

The divisiveness that seems to be the legacy these days of any discussion of issues, local or national, was something that longtime Vancouver community leader John McKibbin had a way of averting as he steered discussions toward productive dialogue, even in the face of some significant opposition.

Thus when McKibbin, 69, a Clark County elected official turned civic leader, died last week in the crash of his World War II-era single-engine plane near the mouth of the Columbia River, the loss was not just a personal tragedy for his family and friends. It was also a loss for the city and region he constantly strived to enhance.

The complexity of the issues on which McKibbin was working to create positive outcomes indicates the depth of the hole he left for Vancouver, Clark County and the state to find a way to fill.

Two issues stood out, and were to have been the focus of a breakfast meeting I had scheduled this past Monday with McKibbin and Don Brunell, the retired president of Association of Washington Business, who was McKibbin's longtime friend and associate.

Instead the breakfast became Brunell's sad opportunity to reflect for me on the man who had been elected to the Washington State Legislature in 1974, when he was not yet 30 years old, was elected a Clark County commissioner four years later and served three terms before he turned his focus to business.

"He brought people from opposite poles together, not always achieving agreement but to at least having an understanding of the other side's position," said Brunell, who had been McKibbin's friend since he joined Crown Zellerbach in 1979 as McKibbin was preparing to leave the legislature and run for county commissioner.

"He has been a good friend since then," Brunell said. "He was a problem solver who was gracious to his opponents as well as supporters. He had great political instincts. He worked issue by issue and had the ability to scope out an issue and try to reach resolution."

"When it came down to a divisive issue, he never personalized differences," added Brunell, who since retiring from AWB has been a Vancouver resident and writes a regular column on business and government, with the likelihood he will devote a column to McKibbin once he works through the loss of his friend and associate.

McKibbin was president of Identity Clark County at the time of his death, ironically while returning on a flight out past the mouth of the Columbia with the wife of a deceased friend who wished to scatter her husband's ashes at sea. He had headed that business advocacy and economic-development organization for the past two years after having been the founding chair 20 years ago.

One of the major issues that had McKibbin's focus was the struggle to resurrect the Columbia River Crossing Project, an effort to build a new bridge to connect Portland and Vancouver, replacing the 99-year-old span and extending Portland light rail to Vancouver.

The project died two years ago after more than a decade of negotiations between the two states broke down over the issue of light rail for the new span. McKibbin was quietly working leaders in both states to get discussions going again.

But the issue perhaps closest to McKibbin's heart was the initiative to create a Pearson Field Aviation Education Complex at the oldest continuously active airport in the United States, where his hanger in which he kept the classic plane he and a friend had refurbished was a regular gathering place.

That education project was the topic for an earlier Vancouver breakfast meeting with McKibbin and Brunell.

The issue, which many see as a bizarre example of government overreach, is National Park Service pushback on the effort to use part of a 22-acre parcel once owned by the city of Vancouver but sold in 1971 to the NPS as the permanent location for the Pearson Air Museum.

The Air Museum had been housed on the property, which the agency had leased back to the city, and it had become a community events center and was intended to house the development of a STEM learning center as the focal point of an aviation education complex.

After an acceleration of disagreement with the NPS over the agency's sudden concern about non-park use of parks property, the federal agency took possession four years ago of the facility, and most of the exhibits and other assets and forced the move of a half dozen vintage airplanes, one of which was McKibbin's, to other locations.

The effort to develop a STEM-focused education center led to research that determined that some 40 aerospace-related firms were located in Clark County and that has led to an effort to create an aviation high school, following the model of Raisbeck Aviation High School in the Highline School District. That aviation- and aerospace-themed STEM school is one of the South Seattle district's small high schools.

The flap over what was basically the takeover of the facility by the local Park Service official turned political when GOP Congresswoman Jamie Herrera Butler took up the cause and introduced legislation to resolve the dispute, but nothing has so far come of that effort.

Creation of the Aviation Education Complex, a STEM education center and likely including an aviation high school to help serve the current and future needs of a growing aerospace cluster in Clark County, seems destined to eventually come about, either at Pearson Field or elsewhere, and will be a testament to McKibbin's leadership.

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