Port will trim kiteboard school permits

Decision due Dec. 4; the crux of issue is a saturated market and a crowded beach

Crowding on the Hood River sandbar — one of the reasons the Port of Hood River cites in its decision to trim the number of schools with kiteboarding permits from seven to five.

Photo by Adam Lapierre
Crowding on the Hood River sandbar — one of the reasons the Port of Hood River cites in its decision to trim the number of schools with kiteboarding permits from seven to five.

Hood River will have two fewer kite schools next year.

At Tuesday's Port Commission meeting, the commission directed staff to move forward with a plan which calls for eight total waterfront school permits, with a maximum of five kiteboarding schools.

“It's the recommendation of port staff, the waterfront rec committee and majority of kite schools that we go to five permits for kite schools,” Port Waterfront Coordinator Liz Whitmore told the commission.

Of the eight permits currently issued for the waterfront, seven include kiteboarding while one focuses just on windsurfing and stand-up paddleboarding.

The debate over the proper number of schools on the waterfront has been going on for sometime. Some kite school owners wanted to see the number of schools restricted to as few as three while others wanted the market to sort out the proper number of schools.

The port opened up the submission process Friday and schools have until Oct. 26 to submit their proposals for schools for the 2013-15 cycle.

An evaluation committee consisting of one member of the port commission, a port staff member, a member from either Hood River Parks and Recreation or Community Education and one each from the windsurfing and kiteboarding community will then review the proposals over the following month before submitting their recommendations to the port commission on Dec. 4.

Unlike in previous years the RFP process will cover kiteboarding, windsurfing and SUP inclusively, meaning that schools will not have to submit separate proposals for each sport.

The seven schools operating with kiteboarding permits on the waterfront are currently New Wind Kiteboarding, Kite the Gorge, Gorge Gradients, Gorge Kiteboarding School, Cascade Kiteboarding, Hood River WaterPlay and Brian's.

The eighth school, Big Winds, operates under windsurfing and SUP permits.

During the prior permitting process in 2009 the commission had also intended to reduce the number of kiteboarding schools, then eight, to five. However during the evaluation process the committee determined that six schools were close enough in the scoring criteria that they should all receive permits.

That resulted in returning schools New Wind Kiteboarding, Kite the Gorge, Hood River WaterPlay and Gorge Kiteboarding School receiving permits along with new schools Cascade Kiteboarding and Gorge Gradients.

Brian's, a longtime operator in Hood River, was not granted a permit during the initial process.

After several members of the public spoke up on behalf of Brian Shurton, who operates the school, the port eventually granted a kiteboarding permit to that school as well, bringing the total up to seven.

The commission wanted to ensure the process would not drag out again and decided that there would be no appeals once the commission makes its decision on the concession permits for the three-year cycle.

Commission President Jon Davies also added that he wanted to take the applicants' personal experience into account during the process.

“The committee ought to be able to take into account personal experiences because that wasn't possible the last time,” Davies said. “I don't know how to work that in there but the last time if it wasn't contained in the packet when it arrived on the desk you were not allowed to use it as criteria.”

Commissioner Rich McBride added that the committee needed to find windsurfing and kiteboarding representatives who did not have a bias toward any particular school.

“We want to find neutral parties for those two spots,” he said.

Attending the meeting were Gorge Kiteboarding school operator Mark Worth and Kite the Gorge co-owner Carlos Cornieles, which both operate out of The Spit.

Worth asked the commission to reconsider having the permits be non-transferable and to allow all of the schools to have some presence at the event site.

“It is critical for my business to be able to maintain my presence there,” he said of his small sales office at the southern end of the cruise ship dock at the event site.

He said the event site could be even more critical if construction of the hotel planned for the southern end of the Nichols boat basin disrupts access to The Spit in any way.

“I would like to have the option to work out of the Event Site part of the time,” he said.

Worth added that not having the permits be transferable could make it difficult to sell a kiteboarding business in the future if a current owner wants to move on.

“Ten years from now I'm going to be 64 and there is going to be a time I would want to sell this business ... I understand the concerns the port has to make sure the new owner is safe. But as an organization which has helped start business all around the community I would like you to leave me the option to sell my business if I want to,” he said.

Both Worth and Cornelies said they were in favor of the shorter process this cycle — three weeks instead of four — as it would allow business to know whether they would still be in operation next year.

“If any of us are going to be out of business ... at least it gives us time to do a marketing or an investment in what direction we are going to continue going,” Cornelies said later in the week.

Cornelies said he was not opposed to reducing the number of schools, because the market was becoming increasingly saturated.

“There is a certain market; how many more schools could we have?” he asked. “I think it's necessary even if it does cost people their livelihood.”

Earlier this month the port indicated it was leaning toward an alignment which would see five of the eight water sport concessionaires operating out of the event site with the other three having locations at the Marina, Hook or Spit.

The new permit plan would also change the permit fee structure. Previously permit fees have been $2,000, regardless of location. However, under the new plan, three large spaces at the Event Site would be $3,000 per season; the two smaller spaces at the Event Site would be $2,500, as would locations at the Spit, Hook or Marina.

Additional locations would be $1,500 each.

When the applicants submit their proposal they will be required to include first and second choices for their preferred primary locations.

In her memo to the commission on the matter, Whitmore wrote that “(r)educing the quantity of kite schools will ease congestion at the Event Site, increase safety on the water and allow for improved communication and coordination between kite schools and port staff."

Cornieles said that the crowding at the sandbar, which many of the schools use for lessons, is going to have to be looked at even if the number of schools is reduced.

Several of the schools, as well as port staff, see “friends teaching friends” as causing a crowding issue on the sandbar, and a potential safety issue.

“What makes the situation for us teaching at the sandbar challenging is the people who are teaching friends or the instruction that is happening there without any safety for the other users,” Cornilies said.

Ultimately, the port and school owners hope the situation will be resolved quickly so that all of the school owners, regardless of whether they are selected to continue operating in Hood River, can get on with their lives.

“I'm here for teaching kiteboarding,” Cornelies said. “I'm not here for the politics of it.”

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