On March 15, 1940, Ridgefield voters unanimously approve the formation of the Port of Ridgefield. Ridgefield is located on Lake River, a tributary to the Columbia River in northern Clark County. Initially, the Port will lease its land along the riverfront to wood products manufacturers. After a 1980 expansion of the Port's district boundaries, it will purchase additional property along the Interstate 5 corridor, known as the Discovery Corridor, which will become an industrial park, a golf course, and a planned medical facility. The Port will also foster economic development by helping to redevelop the nearby freeway interchange to accommodate future growth, by participating in planning an overpass to connect downtown Ridgefield with the riverfront, and by rehabilitating a contaminated industrial site to be used for a mixed-use development.
The Wood Products Era
Ridgefield began in the late nineteenth century as an agricultural and timber town. Its first industry, shingle mills, used the river and then railroads to transport goods to market. After an initial burst of growth the town slowed down in the 1920s and 1930s. Residents of Ridgefield decided to form a port district as a means to promote the economic development of their community.
The Port District Act, passed by the Washington state legislature in 1911, allowed voters to form port districts to develop facilities along waterways using property taxes, bond issues, operating income, and other prescribed means to fund the improvements.
On March 15, 1940, Ridgefield's 218 voters unanimously approved the Port's formation. The Port's district encompassed the area within the town's limits. Voters also elected the first three commissioners: Benjamin F. Wray (1893-1966), H. Clyde Cornell (1887-1982), and J. R. Hicks.
It appears the Port did not actively develop land or facilities during World War II. In 1956, however, the Ridgefield Veneer Company plant opened on 13 acres leased from the Port and adjoining land that it purchased. By 1957, the town's last shingle mill had closed and the veneer plant offered the only industrial employment in the area. The company built radar reflector towers, dummy Polaris missiles, cargo containers, and other wood products.
Ridgefield Veneer was joined in 1963 by Pacific Wood Treating. A laudatory article in The Oregonian reported the newly established Pacific Wood Treating plant and noted that, "Two years ago this site was a virtual wasteland. Now all the prime industrial property is gone" ("Once-Bustling"). It noted that tugs and barges served the port and that the town was seeing more activity than it had for some time.
Pacific Wood Treating Corporation, a division of Niedermeyer-Martin of Portland, treated lumber for industrial use. In the 1970s the plant would also pressure-treat Douglas fir timbers that would be used by another Niedermeyer-Martin company, TimberForm, to create the wooden playground structures that would become ubiquitous in American public parks and backyards. The chemicals used on the lumber would have significant environmental consequences.
In 1970, the Port proposed expanding its district to include all that area of Clark County not already part of either the Camas-Washougal or Vancouver port districts, mostly in the northern part of the county. Voters resoundingly defeated the proposal.
In the 1980s, the Port's only tenant, Pacific Wood Treating, faced difficulties with Department of Ecology rules for water protection. The outfall from the plant served as a conduit for toxic chemicals, Environmental regulations required that the company prevent the pollution before their permits would be renewed.
Expanding and Developing
Port of Ridgefield commissioners decided to try again to enlarge its district to allow for the expansion of economic development activities. Port officials proposed expanding the Port to include land stretching from the Clark County Fairgrounds in the south to the Lewis River in the north and from the Columbia River to east of Interstate 5. Voters approved the measure in 1980, which allowed the Port to purchase land anywhere within those boundaries for development.
The first large purchase, in 1984, a 78-acre tract near the freeway that the Port planned to develop into the Ridgefield Industrial Park, immediately attracted a large tenant, Swing Shift Manufacturing. Located in Rainier, Oregon, the forklift manufacturer planned to move to Ridgefield to take advantage of tax breaks, a better location, a larger labor pool, and assistance with financing water and sewer lines. At Ridgefield the company planned to expand from 60 employees to 500.
In order to prepare the site for industrial use, the Port had to obtain water and sewer service and work with the county to enlarge the local water-treatment facility to accommodate the increase in water use. The state Community Economic Revitalization Board provided financing for the project and the County contributed to the effort on the condition that the Port and the City revise the community's long-range comprehensive plan. A committee made up of representatives from the Port, the City of Ridgefield, and community members undertook the project and received an enthusiastic community response. According to Ridgefield mayor Ralph Kraus (1929-2005), "It [the increase in community planning and development] was triggered by the Port saying, 'We've been sitting here for years doing nothing.' Port commissioners took a 'bold step' and purchased about 80 acres just west of Interstate 5 and south of Northwest 268th Street for development" (Gilbert, "Ridgefield Gains").
The Port has since developed several other tracts near the interstate. These projects are part of the Port's development plan, begun in the 1990s and named the Discovery Corridor, which encourages development in a swath of land along the interstate extending from Vancouver to La Center. Port officials planned to capitalize on the port district's location on Interstate 5, near four deep-water ports and an airport, and its growing population to draw economic development into the county.
In 1993 the Port purchased another tract of land on the east side of the freeway and developed it into the Tri-Mountain Golf Course. Not long after it opened, the Port transferred ownership of the course to the County.
Cleaning the Environment
Also in 1993, Pacific Wood Treating filed for bankruptcy, leaving both the Port's land that it leased and the adjacent private land significantly polluted with pentachlorophenol, creosote, and copper-chromium-arsenate. The Port acquired the entire site and began cleanup efforts in 1995. In 2006 work began on cleaning up a 30,000-gallon underground plume of chemicals that threatened the nearby Gee Creek, Lake River, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, and Columbia River.
The Washington State Department of Ecology and the Port have worked together to clean up the site. Instead of using traditional pumping and treating methods, the Port has used a steam injection method of pumping and treating that has been remarkably effective. What could have been a decades-long project is scheduled to be completed in 2011. After the site is made safe for use, the Port plans to develop the Millers' Landing project that will allow for multiple uses. The Port's planning documents envision for the site recreation, retail, office, and light manufacturing activities.
Investing in the Future
In 2000 the Port exchanged a parcel of land near the city's water-treatment plant for the city's boat launch facility at the foot of Mill Street. In 2004 the Port redeveloped the property and opened the new facility to boaters. The boat launch has two ramps, a launch and retrieval float, a dock, a paved parking area, and restrooms. Nearby, visitors can launch non-motorized boats from the shore or from the dock. The launch provides important public access to the river in northern Clark County.
Away from the river, along Interstate 5, the Port has been active in developing the Discovery Corridor. In 2003 the Port purchased 75 acres to the northeast of the Interstate 5 and State Highway 501 interchange and prepared plans for its development. In 2006, Southwest Washington Health Systems purchased the entire site for future development of a medical facility complex. In 2010 the Port purchased 40 acres at Pioneer Street and S 45th Avenue. The site will be developed for commercial use.
As the Lake River Industrial Site cleanup nears completion, the Port is working with the City of Ridgefield to build connections between downtown Ridgefield and the waterfront. Currently, railroad lines lie between town and the waterfront. The at-grade crossings are dangerous and obstruct movement between the two parts of town. The Port and the City are working on plans for a railway overpass extending from Pioneer Street to the Port's land on the riverfront. If the overpass is built it will also prepare the area for high speed train service between Oregon and British Columbia.
From its inception, the Port of Ridgefield has used its authority to purchase and develop property for industrial and commercial use to support the economic development of Ridgefield, and later, northern Clark County. In its 2008 comprehensive plan, the Port describes itself as a "community owned investment trust" and defines its purpose as " making strategic investments that improve the local economy and enhance the economic well-being of the citizens living within the Port District" (2008 Comprehensive Plan, 5). Currently, businesses operating on port-developed land provide more than 800 jobs and future development promises many more.