Port of Newport
Dean Sawyer photo
The battle over the future of the Port of Newport ratcheted up more than a few notches on Wednesday. The Newport Port Commission voted to absolutely oppose Governor Brown’s move for the state to take over the port and rename it The Oregon International Port of Newport.
A bill has been introduced in Salem that would replace local port district commissioners with governor-appointed officials who would represent a wider range of port uses – a seat for agriculture and timber interests, a seat for the fishing industry, a seat for longshoremen, a seat for local economic development interests and a seat for someone from the public at large. Again, all appointed by the governor.
The Newport Port Commission voted Wednesday to condemn the proposal and to launch a wide-ranging public education program in an effort to convince the public that current port commissioners – not the governor – know what’s best for the Port of Newport.
Going on in the background is the hope that a rejuvenated International Port of Newport can step-up to the challenge of taking-on some of the Port of Portland’s workload that is producing major maintenance problems for Portland’s freeway system, traffic congestion and for cargo-ships having to navigate so much Columbia River before they hit the open sea at Astoria.
Oregon House Bill 2284 is aimed at growing the Port of Newport into a true international port which would help get Oregon’s bountiful agricultural and timber products to national and international markets more efficiently and at at lower costs. But what is implied by such a goal is that state and federal governments will agree to offer large grants and low-interest loans that can grow the port facilities and equipment to get that monstrous job done.
However, Newport’s current Port Commission is steadfastly opposed to an invasion of such “outside” interests without having serious conversations with the local community along with a public vote about whether the local community should be running the show, or the state. Many years ago residents of Coos County voted to turn their Port of Coos Bay over to Salem. Coos Bay’s fishing fleet was removed from Coos Bay and re-established in nearby Charleston.
Which begs the question of “What will happen to Newport’s fishing fleet?” Mid-Water Trawlers Cooperative spokeswoman Heather Mann told Lincoln County Commissioners Wednesday that their cooperative unloads millions upon millions of dollars in fish every year – a huge boost to the local Newport economy. Mann added that many fishing families just recently upsized their fishing vessels to more effectively boost their annual catch.
Port of Newport Commission President Stewart Lamerdin said port staff is aggressively planning for the port’s future that will grow the port without hurting or leaving out any port users. Lamerdin said the commission is committed to a profitable and balanced approach to that growth.
Interim Port Manager Teri Dressler said the port has broadened its scope in exploring future port expansion that reflects the desires and needs of the fishing industry, ocean research, tourism as well as international shipping. She says they’re looking for a healthy blend within the constraints of available resources.
But despite all these good intentions there is a great deal of cynicism among a number of top state officials who point out that the Port of Newport has been languishing for a number of years – losing out on large grants that should have gone to major port upgrades. They point to turn-over of port managers, a severe lack of port facility maintenance, and the still not finished International Terminal as symptoms of deeper problems. Among them, a lack of consistent leadership and the resources to produce an international port that everyone says they want. Coastal Caucus state lawmakers are especially discouraged who see economic opportunities consistently pass the port by.
Still, the Newport Port Commission contends they are aimed in the right direction. The commission contends they are exploring a wide array of options to include many user industries that will benefit the whole community. They want the port to be run by local citizens who know what’s best for Newport and the Central Coast.
Others disagree. Top state officials say it’s past time that the Port of Newport get new leadership that understands more than just local needs. They say the port is a statewide economic engine that is under-performing despite receiving considerable financial support from state and federal funds.
Central Coast State Representative David Gomberg says he can see both sides very clearly. And for that he strongly favors giving the citizens of the Newport area the chance to vote on whether to let the state step in and take over.
The Oregon State Legislature convenes January 22nd. We won’t have to wait long to see whether it’ll stay The Port of Newport, or become the Oregon International Port of Newport.