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Port sailing through a reputation rebuild: Despite tough year, finances are coming together

First published in the June 4 print edition

The Pride of America pulls into port June 2, dwarfing the Port of Astoria's Pier 1 building. The return of cruise ships signals good news for the port's finances in fiscal year 2021-22. (Cindy Yingst)
By Cindy Yingst, Thursday, June 10, 2021

The Port of Astoria, which has spent years paying the consequences of mismanagement and questionable business decisions, is working its way back as a respectable member of society.

Business Oregon, the state’s economic development agency, approved the port’s business strategy and capital facilities plans recently. Without their completion -- and without the agency’s stamp of approval -- the port had failed to obtain grants and its public and private partnerships were drying up.

Two weeks ago, Port Executive Director Will Isom met with a regional support team set up by the Governor’s Office. Representatives from Oregon Department of Transportation, Business Oregon, Department of Environmental Quality, and Department of Land Conservation and Development are assisting the port around hurdles in future endeavors and helping the agency strategize the best use of port assets.

And, in a conversation last week with state Sen. Betsy Johnson, plans were set to include repairs to Pier 2 and the East Basin Causeway in upcoming legislation.

“Overall, there was a lot of support,” Isom said at Tuesday’s port commission meeting. “It’s all positive things … and more and more opportunities for investment in infrastructure.”

The port’s future began looking brighter after the departure of former Executive Director Jim Knight, who agreed to resign after a series of financial failures that included the loss of a Business Oregon grant. Commissioners replaced Knight with Isom, who’d been the port’s finance director.

Getting back in the state’s good graces “represents the culmination of a years-long effort to develop a comprehensive professional plan that will serve to guide the port in future planning and development and will strengthen its relationship with Business Oregon,” wrote Melanie Howard, the port’s accounting and business services manager.

The port released the good news – calling it a landmark goal -- by fax and email.

“There is much appreciation on all sides for the many hours of hard work and for the ongoing spirit of cooperation,” Howard wrote. “Ultimately, the … plans will be rolled up into a new intergovernmental agreement between Business Oregon and the Port of Astoria.”

As with many individuals and agencies, the past year has been difficult on the port.

As of April, port officials estimate losing $1.16 million in revenue from the diversion of 72 cruise ships and riverboats, $145,910 in marina fuel sales, $81,383 in airport fuel sales, and $45,656 in hospitality-related revenue.

Prior to the pandemic, the port’s income from log exports dissolved due to a tariff fight with China.

The port scrambled to lower its expenses, nearly covering the deficit in the 2020-21 fiscal-year budget.

Additional help arrived Tuesday. Port commissioners unanimously approved an agreement with Business Oregon, which holds most of the loans on the port’s infrastructure projects. The state will extend from one year to two years a freeze and deferment of all loan payments and interest, saving the port a total of $2.4 million.

“It’s positive news for the port and will give us some breathing room,” Isom said.

Just as Tuesday’s meeting was about to begin in the Pier 1 building, the cruise ship Pride of America pulled up dockside. A short-term agreement allows the ship – without passengers – to dock for two days and, possibly, allow its return later in the month.

It was an omen of good things ahead, Isom told commissioners.

Will Isom, executive director, Port of Astoria

Melanie Howard

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