After nearly a decade, it was a combination of factors - most notably record-high gasoline prices that continue to climb, and an infusion of financial help - that finally moved the Cascade Grain ethanol plant from the drawing board to announced plans for actual construction.

Cascade Grain Products LLC recently announced it planned to begin construction in mid-June on the $197 million ethanol manufacturing plant at Port of St. Helens property at the Port Westward Industrial Park on the Columbia River near Clatskanie.

As many as 300 workers will be employed during the construction phase. When completed in 2008, the plant is expected to employ some 80 workers and annually produce more than 110 million gallons of ethanol.

Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl is excited about the potential of 80 family-wage jobs the plant is expected to bring to her community. Although city government will receive no direct tax benefits from the new plant, which would be built outside the city's boundaries, the mayor said the plant should be a big financial gain for the rural community's school, fire and library districts.

"We've talked about (an ethanol plant) for quite a while," Pohl told the Coast River Business Journal. "Now it's become a tangible vision."

The Cascade Grain plant would be the first of two ethanol plants to be built in the Northwest. Another company, Pacific Ethanol Inc., is proposing to build a 30-million gallon plant at Boardman in Eastern Oregon.

But it is the Cascade Grain project that has, by far, been on the drawing board the longest.

Gregory M. Jenks, deputy executive director of the Port of St. Helens, said Cascade Grain has been working to site an ethanol plant at Port Westward for nearly a decade.

"This project has a long history," Jenks told the CRBJ. "We've been working with Cascade Grain for eight or nine years. But it was much earlier that we were in discussions with other companies."

What makes the project more viable now was "timing," Jenks said.

"The project couldn't have hit Wall Street at a better time."

With motorists paying $3 a gallon for gasoline and expecting to have to dig deeper into their pockets as fuel prices continue to rise, there is renewed interest in producing more ethanol-gasoline blends. Ethanol, which is produced from corn, is far less expensive to make than gasoline.

While Microsoft's Bill Gates' investment firm is helping to bankroll Pacific Ethanol's proposed $50 million ethanol plant at Boardman, Cascade Grain attracted the interest of Berggruen Holdings, Inc., which is providing $77 million in equity financing for the Port Westward project. According to published reports, the family-owned business, operated by Nicolas Berggruen and with offices in New York and London, manages a wide-ranging investment portfolio and has more than $1 billion in assets.

Cascade Grain has asked for a $20 million loan from the Oregon Department of Energy, which Jenks said he expects to be approved quickly.

The Port of St. Helens also secured an $8.6 million financial assistance package from the Oregon Special Public Works Program fund to provide water and wastewater treatment facilities to the Cascade Grain site. The port earlier received a $1.5 million state grant for a site study that led to the facility receiving its National Pollution Discharge System (NPDS) permit.

Still to be approved is a port request for a $5.5 million state loan to upgrade the rail line that would be used to transport corn to the ethanol plant, Jenks said. After production, the ethanol would be piped from the plant to ocean-going barges for delivery to refineries.

While Jenks admitted there remains "a lot of work left to do," he said he is confident that the Port of St. Helens' long struggle to site an ethanol plant at Port Westward finally will become a reality.

"I'm looking forward to breaking ground in June and getting this plant built," he said.

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