Port again eyes Tongue Point acquisition

The Port of Astoria looks at North Tongue Point as the potential future of cargo shipping.

From Jim Knight’s perspective, the future of any cargo shipping at the Port of Astoria is at North Tongue Point.

The Port’s executive director shared his philosophy during a Tuesday goal-setting workshop in which Port commissioners and staff dug into a 2010 strategic plan, hoping to pull out the useful pieces, discard what has become irrelevant over the past five years and update the agency’s strategic vision.

While log exports have proven a good fit on the central waterfront, Knight said central Astoria lacks the rail access and space for heavy cargo shipping, while the docks are not strong enough to support mobile harbor cranes hoisting cargo.

Developing North Tongue Point into a self-supporting marine industrial facility is one of the Port Commission’s goals from 2010. The dilapidated yet stout former naval base east of Astoria includes about 30 acres of paved tarmac and five finger piers spread over 80 acres of submerged land. Making the property particularly appealing to shippers is access to a long-dormant rail spur on one side and a deep water channel of the Columbia River on the other.

The Port last seriously tried to buy the property from Missoula, Montana-based Washington Development Co. in 2008, but ended up signing a 10-year lease in October 2009, with an option to buy afterward.

Knight, estimating that it would take $12 million to repair the World War II-era seaplane base, said he has been approached by multiple groups with grand schemes, from dismantling ships to spending upward of $500 million to develop North Tongue Point into a modern shipping facility.

“We’re going to have to make some decisions about the long-term acquisition of Tongue Point,” Knight said, adding the Port could probably save money by taking out a loan with the state to buy the property rather than continue paying the $350,000 annual lease.

In 2008, Washington Development Co. wanted more than $7 million for North Tongue Point. The price has been quoted as low as $5 million and in 2014 had an appraised land value of more than $6.2 million. Another appraisal would be required before a sale.

The goal of making North Tongue Point self-sustaining remains tenuous.

J.E. McAmis, a marine contractor that has been at Tongue Point since the 1980s, is moving to a larger facility it purchased at the confluence of the Cowlitz and Columbia rivers in Longview, Washington, after failing to reach a long-term deal with the Port. Pacific Seafoods, which relocated to North Tongue Point in 2013 after the company’s plant in Warrenton burned down, intends to rebuild. Property Manager Shane Jensen said tenants know they cannot extend their leases with the Port beyond 2019.

The North Tongue Point property, with the Port unable to finance modernization or land a big developer, has mostly underperformed while playing host to multiple false starts. The most recent was Taiwanese-American developer Huy Ying Chen’s ambitious proposal to use a federal immigrant investor program to turn the property into a modern barging and cold storage facility. The deal fell apart amid conflicting statements by both parties and Chen’s preference to buy rather than lease the property from the Port.

Commissioner Robert Mushen said the Port should enter warp speed in trying to acquire Tongue Point, adding the county could likely support a general obligation bond to help the Port buy the property.

Commissioner James Campbell, who owns Campbell Towing & Marine Construction and used to be based at Tongue Point, said he doesn’t think railroads, already running at near maximum capacity on busier routes, will ever return to Tongue Point.

Others worry about competition.

“There aren’t many facilities like Tongue Point on the Columbia River,” Commissioner Bill Hunsinger said. “We don’t want someone coming in and going into direct competition with us.”

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