Local officials want old mill sites put to work

Hood River Port leader and economic development coordinator lobby Oregon leaders

Two Hood River officials are lobbying Oregon leaders to solve some of the state’s budget problems by allowing more than 144 abandoned mill sites to be converted into other industrial uses.

Hood River Port Director Dave Harlan plans to broach that issue, among others, with Gov. Ted Kulongski over lunch today. Harlan was one of a small handful of local dignitaries invited to share the noon meal in Hood River with the top state leader during his afternoon visit (see related story, this page.)

Harlan said that Hood River joins many other rural counties in its lack of industrial property that is ready for development. He said that streamlining the regulatory process to regenerate the former Hanel and Dee lumber plants — and many others around the state — would be cost effective because most of the necessary infrastructure was already in place. In addition, Harlan said these operations were formerly set up for manufacturing purposes so that another industrial enterprise would be a compatible use.

“If a local firm outgrows its 5,000 square feet of space and can’t find the 20,000 square feet it needs then it has to go somewhere else — and this community has seen that happen over and over,” Harlan said.

That same message was carried by Hood River County’s new Economic Development Coordinator, Bill Fashing, to the state Legislature’s House Trade and Economic Development Committee Jan. 22. In his first public testimony since beginning work last fall, Fashing accepted an invitation by Chair Patti Smith, R-Corbett, to present information about the financial realities facing rural communities.

He highlighted the fact that the decline in timber harvest had forced the closure of many mills throughout the state since 1989, leaving structures that could be easily renovated for other uses. Fashing said natural resource protection measures made it unlikely that harvest levels would ever increase enough to put most of these facilities back on line — so these prime properties were simply being allowed to deteriorate.

“I felt the legislature received this information well and exhibited a cooperative spirit about the old mill sites,” said Fashing.

In late 2000, the Hood River County Economic Development Committee identified the lack of ready-to-build industrial and commercial sites as a key problem to attracting more enterprises. In a special needs analysis, the EDC found that there are a combined total of 623 acres of commercial/industrial land in Cascade Locks and the unincorporated sectors of the county, but less than 169 acres of this inventory is currently vacant. An additional 88 acres is vacant but does not have the necessary infrastructure to use.

“Isolated parcels may count from an inventory point of view but from a marketing standpoint they don’t count at all,” said Harlan.

He said the Hood River port is facing a related challenge in its mission to promote economic development. According to Harlan, only a little more than four acres of industrial property is available for development under the new draft waterfront master plan and all but three lots have been sold in Odell’s John Weber Business Park.

However, he said the biggest irony could be finding buyers for the one site that should be the most attractive, the highly visible 5.68 acres that lies just north of Wasco Street and east of Rand Road. Harlan said that property is one of the largest remaining contiguous pieces of light industrial land inside the city’s Urban Growth Boundary. But if the cost of improving the site as a business park cannot be kept to a minimum it will be impossible to draw tenants. He said the purchase price for that land of $680,405 was the lowest offered in years — however it penciled out to about $2.75 per square foot, up about $1.50 from the going rate in The Dalles.

So, if the city and port cannot reach consensus on design plans that keep roadway development and expenses for utilities as low as possible, it could drive the cost for each square foot up to $3.50 or higher — and drive potential clients away.

“How many home-grown distribution operations can justify that cost difference?” asked Harlan. “If you’re a local who has grown a businesses here it comes down to whether you want to continue to pay three to four times more for land or serve your clients more cost effectively someplace else.”

He said many people equate industrial plants with “belching factories” but most modern operations are “relatively modest,” with buildings of between 10,000-20,000 square feet.

“I look forward to bringing these rural issues before the governor and starting some dialogue that should be educational on both sides,” said Harlan.

He said the port hopes to bring in employers that will lower the county’s existing high jobless rate. He said if that goal can be reached it will bring in more good paying jobs that will also boost the area’s average wage and hourly income, which runs substantially below that of metro counties.

On behalf of the county, Fashing intends to make contact with the owners of all available industrial/commercial properties. He wants to help identify infrastructure needs to make these sites “shovel ready” and then outline potential solutions.

“What we need is to bring in quality jobs and that is difficult if you don’t have sites ready for development,” Fashing said.

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