Gov. Kate Brown has nominated a census tract covering a large swath of eastern Astoria from the Columbia River Maritime Museum to North Tongue Point as one of Oregon’s 86 opportunity zones.
If confirmed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the federal designation could lead to an infusion of money by investors hoping to lower their capital gains tax burden.
Opportunity zones were created by the federal tax overhaul endorsed by President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress to encourage new investment in struggling communities. Jim Knight, the executive director of the Port of Astoria, applied for the opportunity zone designation, calling it another potential tool to help further the Port’s mission as an economic development agency.
“We’re doing our best to capture every opportunity in the grant world,” Knight said.
Knight’s application came after the Astoria City Council declined to pursue an opportunity zone. City councilors were concerned that the rules of the federal program had not been written, as well as the possible gentrifying effect new investment could have on housing. The opportunity zone includes the Emerald Heights Apartments, a large, low-income housing complex where up to 1,000 people live.
Knight said he doesn’t see too much risk to the city, which still has authority over local development. Grant resources are drying up, he said, and the Port needs outside investment to improve its decaying infrastructure in places like the East Mooring Basin. The basin, largely emptied of vessels, is filled with sea lions and in need of a new multimillion-dollar causeway.
Before applying for the opportunity zone, Knight also reached out to Hyak Tongue Point. The company late last year purchased North Tongue Point, a former Navy seaplane base on the eastern edge of Astoria the Port had been leasing over the past decade but struggled to develop.
Hyak, a boat-building and chartering company, is trying to make the industrial dock and seaplane hangars into a regional marine fabrication and repair center servicing tugs, barges and other commercial vessels. Hyak co-owner Robert Dorn said that while the rules of opportunity zones are unclear, the incentive could be promising.
“We’re all for it, if it helps bring investment dollars,” Dorn said.
Hyak’s purpose at North Tongue Point is mostly to help core tenants — including shipwright WCT Marine & Construction and marine contractor Bergerson Construction — grow their businesses, Dorn said, while providing Hyak a spot to potentially build vessels in the future.
Dorn has also been working with the Port, Clatsop County, Warrenton and Astoria to get North Tongue Point into the Clatsop Enterprise Zone, a state designation that would provide Hyak a property tax exemption for three to five years on new development. The Astoria City Council voted against joining the partnership in 2015 over mistrust of the Port, but has since come around, in part to help Hyak.
“That just gives us the ability to put new capital in (with) a little bit of tax break for three to five years, to help us get up and running,” Dorn said.
Hyak is looking at several major investments to make North Tongue Point capable of servicing bigger vessels. The company wants to strengthen a former seaplane ramp to take out bigger vessels, add aerial cranes in the seaplane hangar WCT operates out of and add more covered workspaces for shipwrights.
Over the next few years, the company would like to build new piers and acquire a travel lift capable of lifting large vessels out of the water and driving them around the tarmac to work sites, Dorn said.
Dorn sees the investments as particularly timely given the numerous closures over the past decade of shipyards around Portland and Seattle. Zidell Marine, a barge-builder located in the South Waterfront district of Portland, launched its last ship last summer before closing the shipyard and preparing to redevelop the land into apartments, offices and retail space.
WCT could build and maintain larger vessels such as barges at North Tongue Point while providing more skilled job opportunities locally, Dorn said.
Willie Toristoja, co-owner of WCT with his wife, Carol, said he now employs about 35 people and is excited to provide new career opportunities. “We really have an opportunity to create jobs,” he said.