Port director: Reflections on Port Westward
It's been a little over four months since I became a resident of this great county and exceptional state, and during that time it has been a true joy getting to know the people and places that make this area such a wonderful place.
I have been very fortunate to have lived around the world, from Europe to Asia, exploring new places, getting to know the residents and learning the history. I've always felt it important to know as much as I can about a new home; after all, that's how one gets to understand a region. While learning the specifics and history of Port Westward, I can certainly understand why there may be a level of skepticism or distrust. I believe a lot of incomplete or inaccurate information has been circulated about the re-zoning, so allow me to provide my insights and correct some of the imprecise information that seems to have permeated.
The question I get asked the most is, "Why re-zone Port Westward at all?" A legitimate question, and the short answer is economic development. The Port of St. Helens by law has a statutory duty to provide responsible, economic development to the area, to help stimulate and provide economic opportunities to the district residents. There's no denying that the employment opportunities in Columbia County are significantly less here compared to our neighboring counties to the south or east. For example, 2015 U.S. Census numbers show that Multnomah County has 487,000 jobs while Washington County sits at just over 284,000 jobs. When you compare those numbers against Columbia County's 9,800 jobs, it's easy to see why nearly 74 percent of residents work outside the county. Remember: those are the most current available numbers.
Opportunities at Port Westward can change that.
Due to its deep water, self-scouring port and dock, Port Westward provides a unique opportunity to several industries that would provide family-wage jobs.
I mentioned responsible economic development earlier and this is what I mean by that distinction. As a resident of this county, I certainly have no interest in turning Port Westward into Newark, New Jersey —no offense to Newark, but I've been there, and we are not them! Instead, we as the Port are looking to bring to the county a good neighbor and reliable employer. As opportunities present themselves to the Port of St. Helens and the county, we as residents can come together to see what businesses are a proper, reasonable fit that reflects this county's personality. Businesses such as food packaging and distribution, grain storage and even an automobile transfer location, are all examples that could provide jobs and be environmentally friendly.
I have read on several occasions that the Port of St. Helens was just looking to bring back coal; nothing can be further from the truth. No one from the port has talked to anyone referencing coal since I've been here, and coal is specifically excluded by the re-zone. Again, economic development can mean so much more than coal.
Concerning traffic, there is a real possibility that road and rail transportation may increase with future tenants at Port Westward and, at a minimum, we have to plan for it. But knowing what businesses are coming, and when, will enable us to gather necessary detailed information and work with Oregon Department of Transportation and the railroad to plan in order to mitigate traffic concerns. Since any potential tenant would likely take several years before they are established and operating, we will have that time to properly plan. But as I have said on several speaking engagements, we have to plan for it, because if we try to do it after the tenant is operating, we're too late.
The rezoning approval requires this transportation planning to be completed before any construction can occur.
Economic development is not an easy task, but it can be done. I know most of us wake up every morning wanting to do the best for our families, our neighbors, the county and the environment, and done well. I also know that not one person has all the answers, so that is why I'm constantly reaching out to anyone and everyone who has a passion for this subject and is willing to provide their opinion and recommendations based upon their experience. This isn't an all or nothing solution, but the harder challenges seldom are. However, I strongly believe that there is an opportunity here that will best serve the residents of the county and the county itself, both in its identity and its ability to improve everyone's desire, to keep this county great and viable for future generations.