Local News: Port of Astoria gets a financial wake up call

At a public meeting at the Port of Astoria last week, a consultant spelled out in candid detail how precarious things are at the port and what needs to be done to get the agency back on track. Joanne Rideout has the story. [3:50]

Consultant Mary McArthur, executive director of the Columbia Pacific Economic Development District explained the results of a three year study of the port’s economic situation.

Col-Pac, as it’s called, is a private non-profit whose mission is to assist agencies like the Port of Astoria in developing strategic plans. McArthur began her study of the port in 2016.

At the meeting, she was blunt. She told the port commission and the public audience that the port needed a short term emergency plan for the next few years to address an organization in crisis. “It’s critical to get back on a sustainable financial footing in the next 2-4 years,” she said. She told the commission that public confidence in the port was currently very low, but that people were interested in helping. “If there was a clear direction,” she said, “the community would get behind the port.”

McArthur detailed issues plaguing the Port of Astoria, which include deferred maintenance on its facilities that threaten its ability to function, huge legal bills, and lack of revenue. She cited $29 million in needed maintenance on Pier 2 alone, and said the port is $15.9 million dollars in debt.

McArthur urged increased transparency to regain public trust, and overcome the perception that the port lacks a clear vision. “It has to be a situation where everybody is in it and working to the same end,” she said. “This has got to be the new way of doing business here at the port.”

While port executive director Jim Knight has suggested selling off some port properties to gain revenue, McArthur urged caution. She said selling without a thorough evaluation could be a mistake. “You lose control of assets that are sold,” she said.

McArthur said the agency would need to work on a new intergovernmental agreement with the state of Oregon, tightly scripted with timelines, reporting and clear deliverables. The exact mechanism of how to accomplish this has yet to be worked out, and will fall to Knight and the port commission.

After the meeting, Knight seemed optimistic. He said it took time for McArthur to gather the needed information and assess what state the port was really in. He said with the plan now defined and in place, the port has the means to make a fresh start. As of July, the port will have a new commissioner, as long time commissioner Bill Hunsinger steps down and newly elected commissioner Scott McClaine takes his former seat. Knight said what he called a “whole new commission” would be able to leave behind what he termed “petty problems and arguments,”

He said McArthur’s assessment was important because staff are typically so engaged with day to day operations that long range planning was challenging.

Knight: “It’s really difficult to just put a pause on all port operations, well these fires can’t continue to burn right now, ‘could you just stop burning? We’ve got a strategic plan to put together.’ We’ve had burning fires of urgent issues that have been constant for the last four and a half years. I can’t think of one week where there hasn’t been something critical that had to have been addressed.”

Knight said the commission must now vote to adopt the ColPac draft plan. He said the port will be seeking comment. Knight said he would be attending municipal meetings around the county to talk with leaders and the public.

In recent years, Knight has faced criticism from commissioners and former port employees about his business practices. The Daily Astorian reported this week that the port commission will soon anonymously survey port employees, which will heighten scrutiny of Knight and his work as executive director. In April, former second in command at the port, Matt McGrath, resigned as director of operations, and wrote a letter to the port commission describing Knight as incompetent and dishonest.

Earlier this year, the port returned $1.5 million in Connect Oregon grant money to the state dept of transportation, after the port failed to meet matching funds for a grant that would have addressed repairs at Pier 2.

I’m Joanne Rideout reporting.