WARRENTON — Mike Brown, like many in the seafood processing industry, is used to old buildings — massive complexes from another generation that have seen countless fish and hundreds of filleters come and go over the decades.
But as general manager of Pacific Seafood Group’s rebuilt Warrenton facility, Brown is about to be in charge of a brand-new building.
The West Coast seafood processing giant is in the middle of rebuilding after a fire destroyed the original plant in 2013. Construction began last year, a new dock is in place and the facility is expected to open for the Dungeness crab season in December. The entire building will likely be completed in early 2018.
“It’s going to be a world-class facility,” Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer said. “It’s a win-win for everybody and I’m just excited to be a part of it.”
The mayor met with company representatives Wednesday morning to sign documents confirming the partnership between the city and Business Oregon with Pacific Seafood. The Warrenton City Commission Tuesday night approved two related items: a $3 million lottery bonds grant agreement and a disbursement of the lottery revenue bonds.
Balensifer thanked the company for its commitment to its employees and the broader community, calling Pacific’s return “a homecoming.”
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Brown said as he walked through the skeleton of the new building, the sound of crews at work on the second floor nearly drowning out his words. He has been with the company since the 1990s; Pacific first took over the site in 1983.
Dan Occhipinti, general counsel for Pacific Seafood Group, said the company expects its total investment in the new facility to exceed $20 million. He credits an “incredible partnership between (Warrenton) and the state of Oregon” for making Pacific’s return possible.
Earlla Michaelson, the lead for the facility’s fillet area, has been with the company for 30 years and said she saw her life go up in flames in the 2013 fire. She was there with other employees Wednesday as fishermen unloaded salmon. Being back at the site and seeing the old office, which survived the fire, “memories just flew back,” she said.
After the fire, Pacific moved its Warrenton plant employees to a temporary facility at Tongue Point in Astoria and operated in a limited capacity out of a hangar there ever since. The company planned to return to Warrenton six months after the fire but the plans were delayed for two years, Occhipinti said.
Pacific’s Special Projects Manager Aaron Dierks estimates the new building, including a second story and an addition for crab processing, will be about 72,000 square feet. The original building was approximately 33,000 square feet.
“The actual construction work has gone as smooth as it could go,” Dierks said.
The loss of the plant was a blow to Warrenton. Besides losing a major local processor and its largest employer, the city also lost a big water customer. The city had been reluctant to raise water rates for years, and the sudden loss in revenue exacerbated the need for the city to increase rates to address water infrastructure.
Pacific’s return will not herald a drop in water rates — the rates needed to go up, regardless, Balensifer said. What it could do, though, is spread out future increases so that residents do not have to experience huge jumps each year.
It isn’t clear yet, anyway, what the company’s water costs will be when the plant reopens. Pacific will be working with a modern facility, and has no plans to process shrimp there — a huge use of water — like it did in the past. Instead, it will add Dungeness crab processing to a roster that includes whiting and salmon, among other species.