by Deborah Steele Hazen
My last conversation with my father, Gail Steele, the longtime editor and publisher of this newspaper, was about the potential for development and job creation at the Port Westward industrial park.
It was 15 years ago this month. He was lying in a bed at St. John Medical Center in Longview, dying of heart failure, but his deep devotion to the community where he was born and to which he had devoted his life was as keen as ever. When I went to visit him the next day, he had slipped into unconsciousness, and he died a few days later.
My father, and his father (Art Steele), believed that industrial development at Port Westward was the key to prosperity in north Columbia County. They were strong advocates for it from the moment that the federal government declared the Beaver Army Ammunition Storage Point “surplus” in 1963, after operating it as an Army base and a shipment point for ammunition during World War II and the Korean War.
In October of 1965, the voters of the Port of St. Helens district voted by a 65 percent margin to purchase the property for industrial development with a $600,000 bond issue, and $100,000 the Port had available for property purchases. The margins were even greater in the Clatskanie and Rainier areas – 93 and 83 percent, respectively.
The purchase of the property was completed in the spring of 1966. A little over a year later, it was leased, for 99 years, to Westward Properties Inc., a California corporation, and that’s how it got the name “Port Westward.”
Without fulfilling its promise to develop the property for job-creating industry, Westward Properties transferred the lease to Kaiser Aetna, which did not build an aluminum plant there. It was subleased in 1972 to Brady Hamilton, which did conduct a log-loading operation for two years. Portland General Electric (PGE) assumed the lease in 1973, completing construction of its Beaver Generating Plant in 1975.
In the almost 40 years since then, there have been many proposals for Port Westward, but none of them came to fruition except for three: PGE’s $285 million Port Westward Unit 1, which went on-line in 2007; PGE’s $300 million Port Westward Unit 2, which is now nearing completion, and the Cascade Grain ethanol plant (now Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery), which began operation in 2008, before going bankrupt in early 2009, and then resuming operation as a shipment point for North Dakota oil to West Coast refineries.
These three projects have provided hundreds of construction jobs and, currently, about 120 permanent family-wage paying jobs – about 80 at PGE and 50 at the bio-refinery/oil transloading business now owned by a Fortune 200 company, Global Partners LP, which is ready to invest 50 to 75 million more at Port Westward and add 30 more permanent family-wage jobs.
In the four decades that have passed since PGE built the Beaver plant, much has been done to increase the desirability of Port Westward as an industrial site – water systems, road improvements, rail upgrades.
If the Oregon Transportation Commission, at its meeting next month in LaGrande, takes the advice of three levels of county, regional and state groups that ranked public infrastructure projects for importance to the statewide economy, job creation and project readiness, two Connect Oregon V lottery-funded grants will be received by the Port of St. Helens to upgrade the dock at Port Westward, and a third will be received by the City of Rainier for rail safety improvements to A Street. Those grants will be matched by money from the companies locating or expanding their operations at Port Westward.
They will make improvements to publicly-owned infrastructure that will provide jobs and services to local people for decades to come, regardless of what commodities are being transported over them.
Previous upgrades were funded by the Port Westward Urban Renewal District and are being paid off with the property taxes paid by the industries at Port Westward. When those debts are paid off – and the more industrial development that goes in the faster they’ll be paid off – the tax valuation of those industries will go on the regular rolls and be a boon to the local and county-wide tax districts.
For years, the Beaver plant alone, which went on the tax rolls before the creation of the urban renewal district, paid about five percent of all the taxes in the county.
If everything that is now proposed for Port Westward is built, it would increase the total tax valuation of the county by approximately 50 percent, and go a long way towards solving the funding problems of Columbia County, including the sheriff’s office and the jail; the Clatskanie Rural Fire Protection District, 9-1-1, the Clatskanie Library District, Park and Recreation District, etc.
Starting next year, all of those districts and several others – including the Clatskanie School District – will benefit significantly from the Strategic Investment Program (SIP) payments that PGE will begin paying on its newest plant.
Port Westward is now recognized throughout the Pacific Northwest as one of the last, best industrial sites on the Lower Columbia River. Industries locating there are and should be held to the strictest environmental standards.
For the local area, Port Westward development offers jobs that will support a family and tax valuation that will support our schools, fire department, law enforcement, and other vital and important services.
If the proposed Northwest Innovation Works LLC methanol plant becomes a reality, it would provide about 230 permanent family-wage jobs, plus hundreds of construction jobs for years and a $1.8 billion tax valuation. It also will help take coal-fired plants in China off-line.
We understand that people are concerned about climate change and carbon emissions. But, unless they don’t use gasoline-fueled vehicles for transportation, or buy goods that are made or transported with fossil fuels, it’s rather hypocritical to be opposed to the American produced-oil being transported by Global Partners.
We understand that people are concerned about the safety of oil cars. Global Partners is voluntarily using nothing but the most modern and safest cars.
Rail improvements have already been made in south Columbia County, and we applaud the leaders of Rainier who are seeking to make the best of the rail line running through their community.
We’re sorry if people located along the railroad thought there would never be any more traffic on the Portland & Western line between Astoria in Portland. Would they prefer considerably more traffic on Highway 30?
In testifying in support of the Connect Oregon V grants last week, Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl pointed out that “Teevin Brothers log yard on the western end of the City of Rainier brings in logs utilizing 12,000 rail cars per year. One loaded rail car equals 3-1/2 log trucks. This means a total of 44,276 trucks per year are not traveling through Salem, Portland, the freeway or Highway 30. U.S. Gypsum uses 40 rail cars per week, eliminating 125 trucks a week from highways. Stimson Lumber ships out their product by rail twice a week rather than by truck. Georgia-Pacific Wauna Mill utilizes rail for delivery of materials for their paper mill. At a time when funds are minimal for road and highway repairs, this counts. At a time where people are concerned about carbon footprints, this is meaningful.”
The Benefits of a Diversified Economy
A healthy economy is diversified, comprised of industrial and manufacturing jobs, small businesses, agriculture, tourism, etc.
With proper planning and mutual cooperation, industrial development at Port Westward need not interfere with farming nor tourism.
Local industrial jobs help Clatskanie’s and Rainier’s small business community, because people who work in their home towns also tend to shop more in them. They are more connected to their communities, and without long commutes they are more able and willing to volunteer – something the towns served by this newspaper have always prized.
Today, over 70 percent of Columbia County residents who are employed have to travel outside the county to their jobs. Not long ago, a letter to the editor suggested that Clatskanie should be content to exist as a “bedroom community.” The fact that so much of Columbia County already is a bedroom community for Longview/Kelso or the Portland metropolitan area, is one of the major reasons why the county and other public service districts are in such bad financial shape.
Residences use more in public services than they pay in property taxes to support them. The opposite is true of industrial valuation.
Over the past 46 years, since I drew my first paycheck from this newspaper and the first efforts at development at Port Westward were underway, I have written many pages, perhaps volumes, about the positive benefits it will bring to Northwest Oregon.
Like my father and grandfather before me, I will go out fighting for prosperity for my hometown.