Harbor District CEO: Build dock before railroad

The CEO of the county’s Harbor District has named dock development as a priority project and one that would need to be done to make railroad development feasible.

Harbor District CEO Jack Crider described the district’s “projects and priorities” at a May 29 lunch event at the Samoa Cookhouse. The most ambitious of them is the purchase and renovation of the former pulp mill on the Samoa Peninsula into an aquaculture facility, water treatment plant and a multi-purpose dock.

The purchase is under negotiation with the mill’s owner, Freshwater Tissue Company, and several goals could be fulfilled if the deal goes through. “Does this fit my perfect mold – it does,” said Crider, adding that the mill property’s location near the mouth of Humboldt Bay and ample warehouse space makes it an ideal spot for a public dock that could accommodate shippers.

The downside is the presence of above-ground chemicals left over from pulp operations, which would have to be removed. Crider described that a “big challenge” but he said dock development could spark new shipping activity in the county’s under-utilized port.

The event was sponsored by the Humboldt Bay Harbor Working Group, which supports establishment of a port-railroad infrastructure link. During a question and answer session, Crider was asked about the viability of increasing shipping without a railroad connection.

Focusing on exports, Crider reversed the query’s premise, saying that “we’re sitting right in the middle of a giant wood basket” and that “if I just had a good dock and some upland property, I know people that are wanting to come here.”

Relating his experience with railroads as director of Oregon’s Port of Astoria, Crider told the audience he’s seen “massive washouts, massive winters” and “hundreds of derailments.” Developing and maintaining railroads is difficult, he continued, but “right now, a dock is something we can get our hands around, it’s something that we have enough political capital to acquire.”

Building an east-west railroad connection to a cross-country line in the Redding area is a controversial proposal supported by the working group but it’s intensely questioned by skeptics. The district is using $19,000 of a larger transportation access grant from CalTrans to assess the feasibility of a variety of railroad options.

Asked about tandem port/railroad development, Crider re-emphasized that dock development is a more realistic priority and has to be done to create a market for railroad investment. He said that he’s travelled to Asia to solicit shipping customers and has found that “they’re interested in Humboldt County” after viewing its timberlands and mill facilities on Google Earth.

“Then they start asking about facilities – basically docking facilities,” he continued. “And that’s when I say, ‘Well, we have this and this and this, but they’re not ready yet.’”

Dock development is financially viable, Crider said. “The market is there and for $20 million, I could create something that would actually demonstrate the viability of the wood products industry here,” he continued.

Doing that could “stimulate the need for rail,” Crider said. “I’ve never been able to find someone who pops out and says, ‘Yeah, we’ll invest $1 billion to rebuild the rail’ – there’s got to be some market-driven need to do that to cover the debt service and operation cost.”

Local production of export products like wood chips would have to be increased, Crider said, adding, “The trees are there.”

Although dock-railroad issues dominated the question and answer session, Crider had also talked about establishing an aquaculture facility at the pulp mill site, upgrading the district’s Redwood Marine Terminal into a “commercial fishing support center” and buying dredging equipment that could be leased to private dock owners and the City of Eureka.

The district’s need for income-enhancement is acute. In an interview after the meeting, Crider said that dredging costs, debt service and bar pilot fees have led to a $3 million loss in the district’s harbor account since 2001. Marina expenses amount to $200,000 to $300,000 a year and significant rate increases will be implemented, which Crider expects will be very controversial among commercial fishermen.