On November 5, 1958, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners formally establishes a new port district, one day after county voters approve its formation. In the early 1970s the Port will develop the Lyons Ferry Marina; in 1996, the Port will acquire a 39-mile-long railroad line. During the 2010s, the Port plans to develop Blue Mountain Station, billed as “the world’s first eco-industrial park.”
In 1911 the Washington Legislature authorized local voters to create publicly owned and managed port districts, which could raise revenues and implement waterfront improvements. By the late 1950s, 22 port districts had been formed both in Washington and Oregon along the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean to Kennewick (Benton County), including one in Walla Walla, less than 30 miles from Dayton, the county seat of Columbia County.
At the same time, more dams were either planned or under construction on the Snake River in southeastern Washington, which forms the northern border of Columbia County. County residents recognized the potential economic benefits that the formation of a port district would bring, especially in conjunction with the development on the Snake River. The question of whether to form a port was put on the ballot in the general election of November 4, 1958, and 80 percent of Columbia County voters approved it. Three port commissioners were also elected, each to serve staggered terms: Dorsey Martin (six years), Richard Ingram (four years), and Charles Mead III (two years). The next day, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners formally established the new port district.
The Port spent most of its first decade developing a comprehensive scheme in conjunction with development taking place on the Snake River, and in connection with this, Port commissioner Dorsey Martin served as president of the Lower Snake River Ports Association in the early 1960s. The Port was active in the planning and development of the Columbia-Snake River System, which brought barge traffic to the Snake as dams were completed from west to east: Ice Harbor in 1962, Lower Monumental in 1969, and Little Goose in the spring of 1970.
Lyons Ferry Marina and Park
With the completion of Little Goose Dam (which bridges Columbia and Whitman counties), barges, as well as more boats, could now reach Columbia County. Anticipating this, the Port in 1968 leased land from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for a marina, located on the Snake River just off of Highway 261 about seven miles northwest of Starbuck. The Lyons Ferry Marina was named after a ferry crossing that operated in the area for more than a century until the Highway 261 bridge over the river opened in 1968. Construction began on a small marina late in 1971 and was finished by 1974. The marina has since added two more covered moorages, an RV hookup site, and has converted a service building into a store. Today (2011) the marina is a 37-acre site, which includes 19 acres of water surface. It has 72 covered boat slips and moorage for another 30 boats on open docks.
There are no facilities at the marina to handle barges, but the Columbia County Grain Growers owns a grain facility about half a mile from the marina. In 1971 the Port bought an 18-acre site from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the purpose of building such a facility, and later that year leased part of the site to the Columbia County Grain Growers, who soon built the facility. In 1981 the Columbia County Grain Growers bought the six-acre property from the Port, and today continues its operations there.
Since 2006 the Port has also managed the 140-acre Lyons Ferry Park just across the Snake River from the marina (though the park is in Franklin County) under another long-term lease with the Army Corps of Engineers. But the Port recently announced that its lease with the Corps will end in May 2011, and at the time of this writing, it does not appear likely that the park will reopen in the immediate future.
Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad
In 1996 Union Pacific Railroad donated to the Port a 39-mile stretch of rail line between Dayton and Walla Walla. Seneca Foods, at the time the world’s largest asparagus-processing facility (and one of Columbia County’s most important employers), used the line to ship its canned asparagus, which it had processed in its Dayton plant for more than half a century. The Port accepted the donation as it saw the importance of maintaining the line as a critical link for Columbia County’s economy.
Seneca closed the asparagus packing plant in 2005, but the rail line is still used today -- its largest shipper is now the Northwest Grain Growers of Walla Walla -- although much of the track is in poor condition. (The Port has been working with the Washington Department of Transportation to rehabilitate the track.) WATCO, a short-line rail transportation company, runs the Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad (PCC) on this stretch of line, which is part of a segment of other lines that runs through the Palouse region in southeastern Washington. Approximately 4,000 car loads of wheat, lentils, barley, farm machinery, and fertilizer are hauled annually by the PCC through the Palouse.
The Port’s Economic Impact
The Port also owns Rock Hill Industrial Park, located on Dayton’s west end. The Port purchased the first parcel of land, now known as Rock Hill Industrial Tract One, from Union Pacific late in 1974. The 25-acre parcel was divided into seven lots, part of which were sold to various businesses, including the Rock Hill Concrete Company, a long-established business in Dayton. By the early 1980s the tract was being actively developed.
In 1984 the Port expanded the park with its purchase of an additional 47 acres, known as Rock Hill Industrial Tract Two. About a dozen acres were divided into 15 lots, each slightly less than an acre, in order to accommodate smaller businesses. The remaining 35 acres of this tract is agricultural and residential land, much of which the Port says is too steep for anything but pasture.
In early 2011, the park had a total of 14 tenants providing a diverse and unique range of services. These businesses included Vestas, a company providing wind turbine maintenance for the Hopkins Ridge and Marengo wind farms in Columbia County, and Desperado Cowboy Bullets, which manufactures lead bullets for cowboy action shooting, a competitive shooting sport that has emerged in recent decades.
Blue Mountain Station
In 2008 the Port announced plans to build the “world’s first eco-industrial park dedicated to the recruitment and marketing of organic, artisan food processing companies” (Blue Mountain Station website). This was brought on in part by recent growth in organic food sales, and because of Columbia County’s agriculture-oriented economy, the Port feels it is uniquely positioned to develop such a park.
In 2009 the Port purchased 28 acres in Dayton (just west of Rock Hill Industrial Park) for Blue Mountain Station. The first phase of the project (to build roads, water lines, and other infrastructure) is slated to go out for bid in February 2011. Blue Mountain Station’s master plan calls for about 20 processing buildings at the park. The Port also plans to develop a marketing program that its tenants can participate in for the products produced at the park. As of this writing, Blue Mountain Station is not expected to be fully developed for at least a decade.
The Port Today
In recent years the Port has become an aggressive advocate for further development of the county’s wind industry. The Port believes the wind industry could be the wave of the future, and in fact, wind turbine manufacturer Vestas is the Port’s largest tenant. Jennie Dickinson, manager for the Port of Columbia, observed in a recent interview that the county’s wind industry has not only created jobs in the county but also doubled its tax base in the past few years.
In 2010 the Port reported total net assets of $6.3 million, with operating revenues of $152,000. It is home to 17 tenants (including at its marina operations) that provide approximately 80 jobs to the county’s economy. The Port is governed by three commissioners each elected to serve six-year terms; their terms are staggered, with one commissioner up for election every two years. The Port of Columbia encompasses Columbia County in its entirety, with the Snake River marking its northern boundary and the Oregon state line its southern boundary.