Interview with Joe Smolen
Joe Smolen is the Chair of the Friends of the Port of Alsea, and volunteered to speak to us to clarify the Bond Measure 21-182 in the May 15th election. The Gazette was unsuccessful at finding someone who would speak with us with arguments against this issue.
TYG: So, how did you get involved with this project, and what are your qualifications for doing all this?
Joe: Well, it goes back! We first bought a house in Waldport in 1999, and in 2007 I found myself on the Port Commission, because it’s all volunteer. They needed somebody, and somebody had left the position. They appointed me, and then I got elected for another term, for a total of five years. During that time, it was realized that the strategic plan for the Port was over ten years old. “Oh, better do something about that! We don’t have any money though.” So I said I’d go ahead and start writing that, and I basically wrote an amateurish strategic plan for the Port district. But during that time, I got conversant with what’s called the Ports 2010, which is something that Business Oregon developed. It makes it kind of standard for the ports all over the state, how all the strategic plans look so the legislature can figure out the apples and oranges. [laughs] Most of my life has been around the water. 22 years in the Navy. I worked for NOAA before it was called NOAA!
TYG: What was it called before NOAA?
Joe: US Coast and Geodetic Survey. At the time I was based on Surveyor.
TYG-Graphic Design: Were you based out of Seattle, then? I remember when they used to be on Lake Union.
Joe: Right, that’s where it was! All the ships were there.
TYG: [My parents] showed me where it was. Oooh, it was cramped! I think probably this transfer to Newport has been for the best. It’s been amazing for the community as well.
TYG: You shouldn’t have to go through five or six locks to get to the ocean.
Joe: [laughs] There was an advantage to that—it kept the bottoms of the ships a lot cleaner. Of course now, with the invasive species deal, trying to control that... One other aspect of “qualification”—I’m simply a volunteer. All of the Port Commissioners are volunteers.
TYG-GD: So, you said you’re a former Port Commissioner—are you still involved with them in any official capacity?
Joe: Official, no, unless they came to me and said, “Would you help us with this.” You have another question down here about how the winter storm of 2015 affected all this. That really made the Port go, “Holy smokes!” In that freshet, over that winter, two of the pilings broke off. They just folded over. So they thought, “Oh my gosh. We don’t have any money to do this. We don’t want to go to the voters for a bond, but we’ve got to! Otherwise we’re just not going to survive.” So Rob Bishop, the chair of the Port Commission, went looking for somebody to help. When the time came to actually put a political action committee together, I went to a Port Commission meeting about this, and they said, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to be the chair of the political action committee.” [laughter] So that’s my connection. It’s kind of unofficial, but it’s volunteering. It’s like Yachats! Practically everybody in city government is a volunteer.
TYG: So what exactly is the role of Port Commissioner? And also, what is a strategic plan?
Joe: It’s a business plan.
TYG: So, it’s how the organization supports itself, then.
Joe: Yes. Basically, how it supports itself if it can. The Port district budget is about $110,000 a year. It gets about $40,000 from taxes, the 3.3% per $1,000 [dollars of property tax] that it gets now. The rest of it comes from leases on the properties it has; revenues from the boat ramp; a few thousand dollars from selling licenses to commercial shrimpers on the bay and commercial crabbers. Their budget now is such a balancing act—the revenue is almost exactly what the expenses are.
TYG-GD: So, I had a question about the 2015 storm and the pilings. In the newspaper article that I read in the Newport Times, it said that [the Port] had gotten state grants to replace the pilings. But then further down in the article, it said something about the pilings now being destroyed and rusted. So I’m a little confused as to whether they’ve already rusted since 2015, or if they didn’t get replaced, or if there are more pilings, or what the deal is with that.
Joe: There are kind of two clumps of piling issues. Let me show you a picture: This little mailer went out last fall. This line here [points to the right of the Port structure] is a series of pilings called a debris boom. This is where they lost the pilings, in the debris boom.
TYG: So all the sediment and stuff would come down [and hit the boom], and that impacts the pilings.
Joe: Maybe a boat house... [laughs]
TYG: Have you had that?
Joe: Oh, maybe 15 years since I saw that! I happened to be looking out there, and see a boat house going under the bridge! [laughter] It went down into the Jaws and broke up. That must have been a pretty extreme situation.
TYG-GD: So all the [little bars] are pilings?
Joe: Yes. And one of your questions was, can anybody view the plans. This is a little tiny copy; it’s always available for viewing at the Port.
TYG-GD: So the boom [the white diagonal along the right of the plan] was the part that was replaced?
Joe: Yes. They got a grant. I keep on talking about the capital projects that have gotten done over the past three years. One of them was to replace all these pilings here [along the debris boom] with a grant from Oregon State Marine Board, on the order of $300,000. These pilings here [points to the ones along the main pier] [also need replacing]. An engineer went into the water, and he said at least half of the pilings in this area are rusted, 80 per cent gone. He could poke a screwdriver through them. [...]
TYG: So, I understand there is a bond for a total of 2.66 million dollars over the next 25 years to essentially rebuild the whole thing, according to these plans?
Joe: Yes, and the port is interested in what everybody has to say about it. This illustration is not hard and fast, but it’s the basic plan.
TYG: I certainly thought the kayak launch was a fantastic idea.
Joe: There is one down here [bottom right], but the only problem with it, really, is that you have to walk out this gangway, [which] is real steep and narrow, and it’s not real convenient to use. The kayak platform they have right there now, they’ll move somewhere else.
TYG-GD: So, who are the stakeholders in this project—who would this affect?
Joe: You’re saying stakeholders—in my mind, it’s converting to tax-payers. The Port District is a pretty good-sized area, a big rectangle: Marsh Street on the north—Marsh Street is about three miles north of Waldport—go straight east to the Benton County line, then [south] down the Benton County line all the way to the Lane county line.
TYG: So that includes Yachats, then.
Joe: Yes, Yachats down to the Lane County line. So there’s on the order of 3,500 voting households in that area. That’s a pretty good size. It comes from the statutes of 1911. That’s when the Port was founded. Almost all of the little coastal ports were formed at that time.
TYG-GD: That’s even before the highway was there!
Joe: Right! In fact, the Port of Alsea, in the 20s, they ran a little car ferry, a toll car ferry.
|Car Ferry across the Alsea, Waldport OR (courtesy of the Lincoln Co. Historical Society and OSU's Oregon Online|
TYG-GD: Wasn’t there also a lumber mill out in the bay?
Joe: There were a bunch of mills, a bunch of canneries; the Port managed a dock for Standard Oil—they used to have diesel schooners there, 100-footers. A couple of them wrecked there on the bay! But, you know what... in 1936, when the highway 101 was completed, that meant that there was no more ocean commerce—it pretty much stopped, because that had been pretty much how everything got in and out of the area. And then in 1957, all the commercial fishing on the bay went away.
TYG: What happened in 1957?
Joe: Well, gill netting got outlawed in 1948, and in 1957 it just went away. You know, everybody argues for years and years about whether something should be done, and then in 1957 they decided commercial fishing on the Alsea was done. Now there’s recreation, and a little bit of commercial, but almost everything the Port of Alsea does is for recreational users, and also for stewardship of the bay when it comes to somebody that interfaces directly with the state government about water quality and things that impact the estuary. The City of Waldport has its own estuary management plan that partly governs what goes on, what happens to the water and the environment in the bay. So the Port of Alsea has a three-punch impact: a little bit commercial, almost all recreational, and then stewardship of the bay.
TYG: So would the new marina look any different, either on land or on the water? I can see there’s going to be a new dock going out. But aside from that, would there be building changes? There was something about upgrading the public rest rooms.
Joe: In terms of looking different, there’s going to be a twenty-five foot square that’s going to house the fire department’s on-the-water rescue equipment; they have a good-sized boat and a jet-ski. So all they have to do is go down there and jump in their gear.
TYG: It’s good that they’re finally getting that!
TYG-GD: So they tow down their equipment every time, now?
Joe: Yes, they’re towing it. You know, when there are a lot of people on the water, and 911 has to get out there—it’s a mess for them to get the boat in the water! And once they get their equipment in the water and they’re deployed, they stop everything else with the boat ramp and that doesn’t work too well. Some people get upset.
TYG: This way you can shut down only one of the ramps. [The improvements] say “dual boat ramps.”
Joe: Yeah, at this point the plan is just going to be a slightly wider ramp, and a pier with a finger down the middle of it so there can be two lanes.
TYG: If I remember correctly, it’s real wide right now for just one boat.
Joe: It’s wide enough for double usage, but people aren’t comfortable with it.
TYG: So, how would the change impact surrounding businesses?
Joe: It won’t really change the port, exactly. It’s going to be the same facility, maybe just a little larger. Maybe part of the answer to the question is how the Port currently affects surrounding businesses. If you look at Ports 2010, it says right in there, it’s the State level talking: they tell us through different surveys that they accessed—there was one that the Army Corps of Engineers did in 2003, and one recently done by Business Oregon in 2014, and the semi-formal one I did myself in 2011 when I was working on the strategic plan—it’s all like a choir: they tell you that the reason people come to this area is the Yachats appeal, access to the Bay, and the natural beauty of the area. But all of the businesses here—well, almost all of them—the peak is the thing. They starve in the winter, and then May through October, that’s where they make their money, so they survive the winter. The Port of Alsea and access to the Bay is one of the three major components for why tourists come here. And also, because of the total package, the property values here are very much affected. One of the statements in the Ports 2010 is that one in six Oregon jobs comes from whatever goes on in the 23 ports in the state.
TYG-GD: Wow, that’s impressive!
Joe: That’s a lot of value. [...] The survey in ‘03 stated that over a million dollars came either directly or indirectly from within 10 miles of the Port of Alsea. The one from Business Oregon in ‘14 said it was over six million dollars. Even if it was exaggerating by fifty per cent, you can still see the value coming into the area because of the Port facilities.
TYG-GD: No doubt a lot of it is incidental tourism, like those RV places, other people who might come and stay at hotels, I guess, grocery shopping for your boat trip, and whatever!
Joe: Oh yes! The one the Army Corps of Engineers did—they went into great detail. One of the facts that I remember that they had on the cover, they said that a tourist that comes through the area, let’s say they spend fifty dollars. If they stay overnight, it’s four times that! So lodging in the general area is a huge deal.
TYG: So when would be the time frame for this project? I know the bond itself is for 25 years.
Joe: It’s got to get done in the winter of 2019-2020. November-December, January-February—that’s the in-water work period. You can’t work in the water outside of that time. The reason that period is there is because all the things that live in the water are spawning, and the young are getting going [after that].
TYG: Who would be in charge of the project?
Joe: Bergeson Construction, if they end up doing it. But also [...] Roxie Cuellar, the Port Manager. It’s going to have to be a cooperative effort. It’s like anything that you have built: you hire somebody to do it, you watch what they’re doing, and sometimes you go, “Wait a minute! That’s not right!” [laughter] So the Port will be paying close attention the whole time. After the Bond passes, and the Port District knows it can go ahead, the Port District is required to put the project out for bid.
TYG: How would this re-build combat future sand abrasion and storm wear?
Joe: One of the big reasons that the floating docks are in the state they are is because, probably starting right about the year 2000, somebody was watching a minus tide and saw that these docks were sitting on the bottom out there. These are rigid, concrete, floating docks, and of course the bottom curves. So that tortured them, and had a lot to do with the condition they’re in.
TYG: So they weren’t free, they were locked in.
Joe: So they were sitting on the bottom, and there’s a lot of strain there. The dredging got done—you know, another big project in the last couple of years—it got done around 2016-2017, and now at the lowest tide, the docks are six feet above the bottom. Also, the new docks are going to have some kind of new grates in the middle that are made of high-density polyethylene—that stuff is indifferent to this climate. So the effect of the sand is not going to be an issue. Also, the new pilings are going to be galvanized instead of mild steel. I understand that’s a steel that melts at relatively low temperatures.
TYG: I just don’t know how un-galvanized steel ever got approved for underwater.
Joe: You know, it’s just the times, the methods and the materials [didn’t have enough study data on them].
TYG: What are the requirements for an ADA-accessible crabbing platform?
Joe: Specifically for a crabbing platform, I don’t know, but I worked for TriMet for 24 years, in Portland, and the accessibility for disabled people is a big issue. What the ADA said to us, was that, for instance, if you’re coming onto a bus, you don’t want people to have to go up anything steep; or getting off the bus, you don’t want the going down to get steep, or have a precipice off the edge of it. So you make it like it is now, basically: level, easily accessible, and there’s no way [...] to go off the edge.
TYG-GD: So there are going to be railings off the dock and ramps?
TYG: Perfect! I think that’s ADA, and also just clumsy people. [laughter] I know I would just fall off unless there were serious safety measures, just because I’m that kind of guy. So, what sort of refinancing of loans and properties would be involved with this bond measure?
Joe: The way I understand that question is, is money going to be borrowed against property? Something like that, you’re thinking?
TYG: There was mention in the ballot of a loan that currently ate up like 30 per cent of the Port’s income, and they could get that way down.
Joe: About seven per cent, actually. That’s a piece of property that the district bought about five years ago, something like that. They got a loan from the infrastructure finance authority of Business Oregon for that, a really low percentage loan. That loan has about $100,000 outstanding on it, and we’d pay that off. They’re paying about nine thousand dollars a year against that loan, which is going to start going into a bank account. The big issue with grants, is that, “Well, we’ll give you $100,000 in grants, but you have to come up with $25,000 in matching funds.” The way the Port is now, on a razor’s edge budget, they don’t have the money for matching funds. So they have to get a lot farther into the black. So paying off that loan will allow the Port to begin that.
TYG: Begin to build up a stockpile.
Joe: Yes. They’ll have some money so they can do their part in a grant application.
TYG: What sort of land holdings need to be discussed in order for this project to go through?
Joe: There’s [nothing] new—the Port doesn’t have to acquire any property.
TYG: Does [boat traffic] just stay in the bay, or does it go up river?
Joe: Just in the bay. There are a couple of places way upstream, just before Tidewater, where you can launch. I’ve been with guys on a couple of occasions who have gone up as far as the Highway 34 bridge, like six or seven miles up. That’s probably the limit. Seven miles up, or down to the Jaws. Sometimes, under the right conditions, you can go right out into the ocean, but that’s risky. The bar changes real fast. The bar right now is only about six feet or so. So if the tide drops down that can be real rough.
TYG-GD: I was wondering, because [earlier] you were talking about the tall ships coming into the bay—it must have been different.
Joe: It was a lot different.
TYG: Maybe they just did more dredging.
Joe: There was never any dredging down there. As I understand it, in 1875 Waldport opted out of having jetties.
TYG: What, if any, changes would you like to see made to this bill?
Joe: You know, I haven’t been involved in the planning of it, and as far as I can tell, it’s a good idea. You know, one of the things is that it’s well thought-out; the planning goes back a long ways. Starting with when they decided that they needed to get going on a new strategic plan, all the way back to 2011, 2012. I think that the fact that it’s going to be a little bit larger is going to be of benefit. It’s going to take some pressure off the boat ramp, and also it’s going to have people who are mooring boats for longer during the year—that will help the revenue stream for the district.
TYG-GD: How many boats are moored there currently year-long? Does this allow for that?
Joe: Yes. In fact, that would be ideal. In Ports 2010, the ideal situation is all year long, 75 per cent full. [laughs ruefully]
TYG-GD: So does this increase how many boats can be moored there?
TYG: It looks like it would triple it, almost.
Joe: Well, the moorage will increase from 35 to 48 spaces.
TYG: Well, thank you so much for your time and patience!
Joe: You’re welcome. There is a website that the political action committee has, called http://www.friendsoftheportofalsea.org/. They have maps and will have some other information there pretty soon.
TYG: Great! Thank you so much!