More than a year has passed since a log ship left the Port of Astoria for China. Pier 1 sits empty except for the Regatta, a passenger ship in lay berth since October while the industry rides out the coronavirus pandemic that decimated this year’s cruise season.
The port, facing a scaled-back presence in shipping, is pivoting toward a more localized future focused on land development, boat work and tourism.
Will Isom, executive director of the port for the past year, has overseen a highly efficient operation nonetheless stretched to the brink by an estimated loss of around $1 million in pier revenue.
“We’re always looking at the highest and best use for our piers,” Isom said. “I think that’s something that’s always on our mind.”
A decade ago, that best use was logs. The port seized on a lucrative opportunity with Bremerton, Washington-based Westerlund Log Handlers to export local timber from Pier 1 to China.
After a legal squabble with its Chinese customers, Westerlund was bailed out and eventually supplanted by Astoria Forest Products. The new exporter continued a similar arrangement and built out a processing yard on Pier 3, debarking logs and trucking them to Pier 1 for export.
During the era of log exports, the port brought in more than $3.6 million in wharfage, the charges for using the port’s docks. That was in addition to the thousands of dollars in dockage and security fees the port makes on each visiting ship.
But log exports dried up late last year when China retaliated against tariffs levied by the Trump administration with their own on U.S. products, including timber. The port has not recorded a payment for wharfage in more than a year. Astoria Forest Products paid the port early lease termination fees and left Astoria.
Astoria welcomed the Zaandam, the first cruise ship to visit in some time, in 2002. By 2007, the port became a day trip layover for West Coast cruises, hosting nearly 20 ships. Each year, the port welcomed more ships and greater numbers of passengers.
This year was scheduled to be the biggest ever, with 33 cruise ships carrying more than 70,000 passengers. Instead, the coronavirus canceled cruise season entirely.
The Regatta, a ship operated by Oceania Cruises, pulled up to Pier 1 in October to idle with its crew until April, when it is scheduled to homeport in Seattle for cruises to Alaska. The deal earns the port $75,000 a month. But Isom said that only amounts to less than a quarter of what the port could have made from a regular cruise season.
In October, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lifted the eight-month no-sail order on large cruise ships. The agency laid out a phased approach for the return of cruises, starting with simulated and mock trips, but provided no date by which ships could start carrying passengers again.
“During the initial phases, cruise ship operators must demonstrate adherence to testing, quarantine and isolation, and social distancing requirements to protect crew members while they build the laboratory capacity needed to test crew and future passengers,” the agency explained in a news release.
Bruce Conner, the port’s cruise ship marketer, said he expects the port to host around 20 cruise ships next year as the industry rebounds, with maybe half the usual capacity of passengers for social distancing.
“It’s going to be a slow grow,” Conner said. “But I see two, three years, it’ll be back to where we were and then some.”
The new plan
Without logs, the port has pivoted from an industrial focus back toward a previous waterfront plan from 2007 that envisioned a mix of parklands, tourist centers and a vibrant marine cluster around an expanded boatyard on Pier 3.
The strategy is one similar to the Port of Toledo, a coastal port near Newport that has parlayed a focus on its boatyard into millions of dollars in state grants.
The port hopes to attract urban renewal dollars from the city of Astoria to renovate the Chinook Building, an ailing complex of suites overlooking the West Mooring Basin, and develop the surrounding area into a revamped commercial district. The agency is also exploring the sale of the Astoria Riverwalk Inn for private redevelopment.
Port staff is also working on a capital facilities plan to prioritize $20 million worth of deferred maintenance they estimate is needed throughout the central waterfront. Of chief concern is the sinking docks around Pier 2, where seafood companies lease warehouse space from the Port and employ hundreds of workers processing catch.
After completing the plan, the port and state of Oregon will sign an intergovernmental agreement to codify a partnership moving forward. Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, has loaned the port nearly $20 million since 2001, in addition to several large infrastructure grants.
Chris Connaway is the president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s Local 50 chapter, the port’s primary workforce when handling ships and cargo. The local chapter once included hundreds of members, Connaway said, but is now down to just over 20. The port’s new focus doesn’t strike Connaway as one that will be self-sufficient.
“When the port actually had a few dollars in its pocket is when we were shipping logs,” he said. “The only thing that will ever yield any significant amount of revenue, where they can actually stand on their own two feet … is if they were to ship internationally, blue-water cargo.”
Connaway argued the port should push for government support to reconnect the rail line running along U.S. Highway 30 and facilities like a grain elevator he said have made the Port of Grays Harbor in Aberdeen, Washington, a shipping powerhouse.
Isom said that while he’s open to any ideas and understands the ILWU’s concerns, Astoria is too far from major highways, rail and population centers to be a legitimate player in the shipping market. Previous port directors have echoed that view.
“In terms of the Port of Astoria being a major exporter — not only of logs, but really of anything — we have a lot working against us in terms of the geography, in terms of transportation,” Isom said.
He sees much of the port’s future in the development of real estate the agency owns in Astoria and Warrenton, where staff are laying the groundwork for a new fish meal plant at the Airport Industrial Park.
“I know the Port of Columbia County has been really successful with that,” Isom said of land development. “I think that’s another area where we’re really trying to shift toward, and make sure it’s a priority.”
Another new source of revenue could be a $300 fee the Port Commission approved last year on each oceangoing ship over 200 feet passing by the piers on the Columbia River. The port argues the fee is necessary to maintain Pier 1 as an emergency pullout for ships with mechanical, fire and other problems. Staff estimated the fee could generate around $480,000 a year.
The Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association sued the port over the fees, which have been tracked but not collected. The two sides are still in discovery until January. A decision on whether to go to trial or settle is due in April.