The Port of Astoria is looking to leave North Tongue Point.
The Port Commission voted Tuesday to send a letter asking landowner Washington Development Co. to terminate the agency’s remaining lease and allow tug- and barge-builder Hyak Maritime to negotiate the purchase of the former U.S. Navy base.
The agency has struggled to turn a profit on the World War II-era property, which includes two large seaplane hangars, about 30 acres of paved land and five finger piers fronting a channel of the Columbia River and backed by a derelict rail spur owned by Portland & Western Railroad.
“Within the last few days, discussions really finalized to the extent that we’re bringing it to the commission tonight,” Port Executive Director Jim Knight said.
The Port signed a 10-year lease in November 2009 with an option to buy or extend at the end of the initial term in 2019. Knight said the Port originally had a vision of creating jobs at North Tongue Point but has seen a parade of unsuccessful development proposals and a small amount of business at the site. Port staff have said the agency loses about $250,000 annually on the property.
Building a shipyard
Hyak’s CEO and co-owner Robert Dorn shared his company’s plans and its close relationship with shipbuilder and Port tenant WCT Marine.
“What we envision is a place that can, over time, become a full-service marine construction and repair facility that services the commercial fishing fleets and commercial tug and barge fleets,” Dorn said.
Dorn said his company, registered in Delaware, builds and charters tugs and barges for operating companies and has been looking to make a shipyard, and that he has known WCT Marine’s Willie Toristoja for about 20 years and has been impressed with the marine contractor’s growth, including buying out next-door neighbor J&H Boatworks.
Dorn said Toristoja wanted to grow, but was facing the uncertainty of the Port’s future at North Tongue Point. Dorn hired Bill Cook, a port consultant and the Port’s former deputy director, to help negotiate a long-term lease or purchase agreement for North Tongue Point.
Two weeks ago, Dorn said, Hyak submitted an agreement on North Tongue Point that was accepted by Washington Development Co., subject to the Port terminating its lease.
“It’s important to note that Willie and WCT have 27 full-time employees out there,” Dorn said. “If he can secure a site location, he is likely to continue to add to the local maritime trades workforce by winning additional customers.”
The Port Commission supported Hyak’s proposal as a chance to release the Port from an unprofitable lease and support the maritime industry.
Commissioner James Campbell, who operates Campbell Marine Towing and Construction, a former Port tenant, was once stationed with the Navy at Tongue Point and said he has seen numerous failed attempts over the past 55 years to develop the property.
“What they’re proposing here is a perfect fit for the start of an industrial park,” he said.
But Commissioner Bill Hunsinger, long an advocate of acquiring North Tongue Point, took issue with the surprise nature of Hyak’s proposal. Knight said he and Dorn met last week, so Tuesday was the first Port Commission meeting where he could share the issue with commissioners.
“I don’t understand the Port giving up its future,” Hunsinger said, calling for alternatives such as negotiating a long-term sublease with Hyak or allowing other people to come forth with proposals.
Knight said the Port’s position as an economic generator does not necessitate the agency owning North Tongue Point.
A former longshoreman, Hunsinger asked Dorn whether he would employ union labor.
“I’m planning on helping Willie grow his own company,” Dorn said. “I’m not planning on doing my own company. I want to support him and his company. So that won’t be my call.”
The Port Commission voted 3-0 to exit the lease, with Hunsinger abstaining.
Dorn was short on specifics when asked what kind of equipment he would put in to support a shipyard. Many in the local fishing industry have called for a larger crane than the Port’s 88-ton travel lift used mostly to pull out recreational boats at the Pier 3 boatyard. J&H Boatworks has used a custom trailer to haul boats up a seaplane ramp at North Tongue Point.
“We’re kind of practical in nature,” Dorn said. “We don’t want to overpromise anything. But we want to just get the site, and then start working the site and growing what (Toristoja) has already started.”