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​​New advocacy group looks to form bi-state partnerships

As a unique region spanning two states, the Columbia River Gorge has a long list of individuals, organizations, and businesses that wish to protect and better the area.

Now one more group can be added to that list.

One Gorge is identifying itself as an advocacy group made up of public and private entities that want only the best for the region as a whole by focusing on issues that impact both sides of the Columbia River.

In One Gorge’s objectives, right below “create a strong, vibrant, sustainable economy,” another, more unique objective is listed that makes the entity different from others in two ways. “Increase awareness of Gorge priorities in Olympia, Salem, and Washington, D.C.,“ represents the fact that One Gorge aims to bring together the region’s communities in a bi-state effort, but also that it intends to do what some other agencies cannot: lobby.

“Maybe one of the most important things is that we’re entering the legislative session,” said Michael McElwee, executive director of the Port of Hood River at the most recent One Gorge meeting. “We certainly need to be monitoring the legislature and looking for opportunities.”

At that meeting, representatives from the ports of Cascade Locks, Hood River, and The Dalles were all present, along with representatives from Innovative Composite Engineering, Insitu, the Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce, the Gorge Commission, and more were all in attendance. The Port of Skamania is listed as a supporter of One Gorge.

That said, One Gorge has a long list of business owners, public agencies, and organizations it has approached about joining its effort.

The Port of Klickitat has been cautious regarding its involvement with One Gorge. Executive Director Marc Thornsbury pointed to recent meetings of the Port of Klickitat Board of Commissioners where representatives from One Gorge have presented their mission and asked the port for support.

Tamara Kaufman, former executive director of the Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce who is heavily involved with One Gorge, said she has presented to the Port of Klickitat Board of Commissioners on two occasions.

According to a draft of the minutes from the Nov. 4 meeting of the Port of Klickitat Board of Commissioners, the panel expressed some hesitant interest in One Gorge with Commissioners Jim Herman and Wayne Vinyard at least saying they would like email updates on the goings on of the group. Port Commissioner Bill Schmitt indicated “he would not be comfortable making a commitment until more is known,” according to the minutes.

Anyone interested in working with One Gorge can either call the Mt. Adams Chamber of Commerce at (509) 493-3630 or email onecolumbiagorge@gmail.com

As a new organization, One Gorge is still in its formulation stages. According to Kaufman, the idea of One Gorge, formerly known as the Columbia Gorge Economic Development Coalition, originally stemmed from a conversation between the area’s five ports early last year. Since then, the group has worked to gain participants and figure out its mission.

At its most recent meeting, the One Gorge steering committee narrowed down a draft of what the organization’s key initiatives will be.

Among those, working towards upgrading the Bridge of the Gods and replacing the Hood River/White Salmon Interstate Bridge is at the top of the list. Also included were preparing plans for transportation and infrastructure and economic development strategies throughout the Gorge, identifying funding for specific capital projects, and more.

Given that other groups and agencies in the Gorge are working on some of those same issues, Kaufman emphasizes that One Gorge wants to work with groups like Mid-Columbia Economic Development, the Gorge Commission, Columbia Gorge Community College, the Mid-Columbia Housing Authority, and more.

“We have stressed to other organizations that our role is to work with existing entities and help them to promote their priorities. We are not trying to reinvent anything-we want to take the concerns of the region and help get an organized voice behind the needs of our residents, businesses, and agencies,” Kaufman wrote.

Another top priority identified by One Gorge was securing federal funding through the National Scenic Act from Oregon and Washington investment boards for job creation and business expansion, as well as obtaining commitment of federal funds for transportation improvements in the National Scenic Area.

Darren Nichols, executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, has thrown his support behind One Gorge and reported to the group that Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s recently released budget includes $768,028 to restore the Gorge Commission to its former capacity.

The Gorge Commission has undergone multiple budget cuts during the last few years and will be able to rehire a principal planner, two full-time development review specialists, and a resource specialist, among other improvements, including regaining the ability to update the management plan for the National Scenic Area and catch up on permits.

Nichols called on One Gorge on Tuesday to ask Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to do the same.

“So where I’m at right now is getting Governor Inslee to match Governor Kitzhaber’s commitment. That’s the money for the studies that we need to start figuring this stuff out. That’s what we’re here to do,” Nichols said. “I know I’m asking you to take a leap of faith, but if we don’t get this started today, this week, we’re not going to get this started. So what I’m saying is, I’m here, we’ve got a couple of commissioners here paying attention to this effort and other regional efforts. The commission wants to work with you and get money on the table, so let’s get the states to make that commitment.”



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