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Gorge entities collaborate on scenic area development

Organizations and elected officials with a shared interest in economic development throughout the Columbia River Gorge recently met in Hood River to go over ways the area’s five ports, towns, and organizations could work together within the National Scenic Area.

The meeting, held Jan. 9 at the Best Western Hood River Inn, was organized by the Columbia River Gorge Commission in an effort to develop relationships between port commissions, stakeholders and residents throughout the Gorge.

“Our communities here in the Gorge face a unique challenge and they need some extra special help. I’m really pleased the Gorge Commission has identified urban area policy as one of its top priorities for the 2013-15 session. We recognize that this is a special place, this landscape that is really very well protected also contains a number of communities that need extra help to thrive in the midst of this protected landscape,” said Darren Nichols, executive director of the Gorge Commission.

Viewing the Gorge as “a single economic zone” was one of many goals that came out of the meeting, but getting Oregon and Washington lawmakers to come together and develop a mutual understanding of the needs of the National Scenic area and the region as a whole was a resonating theme, as well.

Oregon Sen. Chuck Thomsen (R-26) and Oregon Rep. John Huffman (R-59) and Rep. Mark Johnson (R-52) were all in attendance, but no elected state representatives from Washington’s Legislative District 14 or Congressional District 3 showed up to the meeting.

During the general discussion, Thomsen and Huffman both indicated that if more money is needed to benefit the National Scenic Area, and thus the Gorge Commission, better collaboration must be achieved between Washington and Oregon. This follows recent statements by Nichols in The Enterprise indicating that the Gorge Commission is “on the verge of collapse” due to funding cuts and staffing shortages.

Schuyler Hoss, international relations director with the office of Gov. Jay Inslee, made it to the meeting and reiterated the need for more lawmakers to reach across state lines when it comes to the funding and economic development of the scenic area.

“I would greatly encourage any help we can get because there’s a group of us that has been trying to educate people, but we’ve only been able to take it so far in our Washington Legislature. It’s a complicated issue and we do need a greater voice and support from the region and we do appreciate it when we get it from the Legislatures on the Oregon side,” Hoss said.

Thomsen pledged at the meeting to meet with Washington lawmakers on the matter, but gaining more funding for the Gorge Commission’s needs wasn’t the only issue with funding brought up at the Jan. 9 meeting, not by a long shot.

Developing a plan to address the region’s infrastructure and transportation needs was brought up multiple times and the recently lifted weight restrictions on the Bridge of the Gods were used as an example of the importance of recognizing the need for a plan to address the aging bridges in the area.

Oregon State University Economist Bruce Sorte released a report in December stating that a year under the previous weight restrictions would have resulted in a total loss of $225,332 in toll revenues for the Port of Cascade Locks and an estimated loss of $239,120 of income throughout the region, according to a report in the Hood River News.

Pursuing a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the US Department of Transportation as a collaborative effort among the Gorge’s five ports to address some infrastructure issues was well received by the crowd.

“When we learned that the bridge was going to be weight restricted and I told my tenants it broke their hearts,” said John McSherry, executive director of the Port of Skamania County. “I like the idea of trying to apply for a TIGER grant and a region-wide plan through the Gorge trying to protect the kind of critical infrastructure that’s here.”

Coming together to find funding not only for the Bridge of the Gods, but also the Hood River Bridge also seemed to be a more realistic possibility to representatives from the different ports.

“One thing we always run up against is the lack of funding. The Hood River Bridge is a huge issue, but certainly not any one of us will be able to fund it alone, be it the Port of Klickitat, Hood River, Hood River County, it’s just too large,” said Marc Thornsbury, executive director of the Port of Klickitat. “We need to find a way to maintain sustainable funding, and maybe the way to do that is with this group.”

“It’s a struggle. We look north to see what Olympia is going to do and frankly I’m almost always disappointed. It’s really frustrating and I feel that if we could get that bi-state cooperation going we might be able to have a better plan as we go into session to fund the Gorge Commission and other bi-state projects,” Huffman said.

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