Current management at the Port of Astoria has suggested selling off taxpayer-owned and supported assets. An advisory committee tasked with helping management address port finances has come to a similar conclusion, suggesting what could be insolvency if the Port does not redirect its efforts and address its deficiencies.
Before selling stakeholder assets — buildings, not the land — the Port should consider what a sale of an asset might look like in the future. Selling to a buyer without stipulating continuity with Port and city future planning efforts is potentially fraught with disappointment later on. Selling of any taxpayer-owned asset should be consistent with what is best for all four corners of the Port district. At a minimum, the sale should be widely advertised in local, regional, and national real estate magazines and related trade publications, both online and in print.
It is unlikely that serious developers are even aware that this port is considering selling publicly owned assets, which is quite rare. So reaching out to the widest audience and vetting potential purchasers against the Port’s strategic plan and in cooperation with community interests is a better recipe for success than a first-come, first-sold scenario.
Discussions abound in the community about selling off the former Red Lion complex at the West Mooring Basin and the marina at the East Mooring Basin. In the case of the East Basin, because commitments were made to stakeholders in Clatsop County and our state and national representatives in return for their dedication to help, the Port was able to garner more than $23 million to restore the breakwater and floats to protect fishing vessels and provide public access to the waterfront. The public access onto the structure is a unique exception and one we as a community need to protect. The loss of that unique access to the Columbia River affects us all, as we are seeing more and more large complex development along the waterfront. Selling of any asset should be aggressively vetted to realize the best possible developer(s) working with us, the communities. This holds true for the Red Lion complex, likely the most visible asset of the public and like East Basin, should be well-considered for what will eventually replace the aging buildings now in place.
I urge you to attend Port meetings and voice your concerns. Insist on public hearings to have this conversation. Ask the commission to move slowly and cautiously, because once sold, and without prudent input for planning, we live with whatever may come, good or bad.
We continue to hear that deferred maintenance is an anchor dragging the Port down, yet all ports are faced with keeping abreast of what needs fixing and will continue to. Like your house, if the roof leaks, you find the ability and resources to plug the leak or you are faced with watching your house fall. Preventing this type of failure is where a manager enlists competent staff to oversee the organization’s assets, and engages a cohesive commission to work with staff, stakeholders and tenants to monitor progress or failure. The Port’s strategic plan, adopted in 2010, provides the guidance and framework for annually reviewing the Port’s capital assets. And the plan is fluid; by definition it is a document that requires updates and changes as situations change.
It is difficult to understand how the Port could have gotten into this situation, if the Port had been following their 2010 strategic plan, revisiting it at least yearly and reviewing with stakeholders. Could the problems such as deferred maintenance, loss of revenues and loss of grants have resulted in a less-severe situation? It is essential that a public agency such as the Port engage with its tenants and stakeholders frequently. It is a requirement for funding via Business Oregon, the agency that is positioned to assist the Port when compliant with an approved and updated strategic plan. Public participation and outreach is vital when asking those same stakeholders for more financial assistance.
Selling off assets as a way out won’t sustain the agency. Nor will it address the Port’s other significant problem, that of management and commissioners working out of the public eye and not communicating with tenants and stakeholders.
Businessdictionary.com defines management as interlocking functions of creating corporate policy and organizing, planning, controlling, and directing an organization’s resources in order to achieve the objectives of that policy. For the Port of Astoria to move forward it is essential management and the commission understand that and separate duties. Commissioners set the policy; management carries out same on a day-to-day schedule. If ongoing operations are struggling, actions should be taken immediately and publicly to address the problems. As it is, we are seeing information withheld by management that if shared may have resulted in something positive, not a cry for help.
Bill Cook is a former deputy director of the Port of Astoria.