Consultants to Port: Update airport plan, hire staff

Group also urges focus on events and tourism

A consultant group says the Port of Camas-Washougal is a well-run organization that values community feedback, but should address its underdeveloped plan for the long-term future of Grove Field Airport and consider hiring more staff members.

Maul Foster and Alongi (MFA), a Vancouver-based environmental engineering firm hired to assist the Port with its latest strategic plan update, announced its initial findings during the Port’s Jan. 20 commission meeting.

“Strategic planning is a messy process,” Jim Darling, a principal planner at MFA, told Port leaders on Jan. 20. “It’s a little bit like sausage making – it’s very messy, but the end product is pretty tasty. It may seem messy now, but as we start to develop some specific goals, they’ll start to fit into the specific categories where they should belong. Generally speaking, we’re going to make sure your mission is well identified. The focus of the strategic plan is on the port’s values and goals. We will encourage you to have some pretty strong statements about what the vision for the port district is in the next 10 to 20 years.”

MFA employees conducted interviews with 17 of the Port’s internal and external stakeholders in November and December 2020. Based on those conversations, MFA senior planner Lisa Parks told Port leaders that they “should be very proud of (their) organization” and that the Port “has a very positive image.”

“We heard really great things about the Port, and that isn’t always what we hear when we ask constituents in the community about port districts,” she said. “We identified that you have very professional and competent staff (members). They are viewed as a strong team and both as very professional but also very approachable and engaged in their community. We heard that the Port is very open to hearing what the community has to say and what your partners have to say.”

The planners’ most pressing questions regarded the Port’s airport plans, which have remained in an uncertain state for several years as the commissioners have prioritized the development of the agency’s waterfront property.

Port commissioner John Spencer has long advocated for a series of major renovations, including a longer runway and the addition of airport-related businesses, to the north Camas site. But the Port has not yet decided on any major additions or enhancements other than a flight planning center, which will be constructed later this year.

“There may be some development areas for the airport, but you should also try to have a clearer vision about what the airfield is going to be 20 years from now,” Darling told the Port leaders. “It goes back to an old planning concept that sometimes defining what you’re not going to be is a clearer statement than what you are going to be. You might think about what goals you want for the airport, including making it clear to the community what the airport might not be in the future.”

Parks said that the Port should prioritize the growth of its industrial park, which has operated at 100-percent occupancy with a long wait list for several years.

“People recognize that you’re doing a good job of getting your industrial properties built out and utilized,” Parks told the Port leaders. “In the future you’re going to need to identify some potential additional opportunities and begin the process of getting that future industrial property assets and move forward.”

Port commissioners took a step in that direction earlier in the meeting when they approved a contract with Commercial Industrial Design and Architecture (CIDA), a Portland-based firm, to design and build a 50,000-square-foot industrial building later this year.

“We heard nothing but great things about (CIDA’s) proposal response to the project, how it blew everyone else out of the water,” Port commissioner Cassi Marshall said. “This is so important to our community. I’m sure that (Port business development manager) Derek (Jaeger) is going to have that 50,000 square feet rented out in no time. In terms of our local economic development, this is such a crucial project for us to keep expanding at the industrial park. We’re really excited. It sounds like it’s in great hands.”

‘Time to focus on events, tourism’

Darling and Parks also talked about how the Port has spent a significant amount of time and resources to develop a more robust offering of outdoor amenities, such as the Washougal Waterfront Park and Trail and the Natural Play Area. They advised Port leaders that they should now focus their efforts on developing activities and events for the parks and trails.

“We heard pretty strongly that the Port has built enough access facilities for the time being,” Darling said. “(You) should look at maintenance and programming, with no expansion in the parks and the access to the river. It was fairly clear how much people appreciate the work that you’ve done, but it’s time to put it on hold for a little bit and concentrate more on programming, which is the prime contact you have with the community.”

The Port’s other major asset, Parker’s Landing Marina, will be more tourism-focused in future years as the waterfront property is developed, chief operating officer Kim Noah said.

The Port agreed in November 2019 to allow its Washougal-based breakwater dock to be used the following summer as the starting point for a series of twice-daily roundtrip tours on a 140-passenger yacht operated by the Portland Spirit, a Portland-based company that offers sightseeing and dining cruises.

Portland Spirit canceled the tours, which would’ve taken people from Washougal to Beacon Rock and back, in 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the company told Port leaders it hopes to return to Washougal in the summer of 2021.

“That (tourism) can be expanded to the other areas,” Noah said. “Washington state is really trying to move in that direction of enhancing its tourism, which has been non-funded and is just getting started compared to Oregon. What can the Port do for tourism, especially with the waterfront? It’s so enlightening to see the impact that tourism has on local businesses and on the community in general.”

The planners also expressed some concern about the Port’s “organizational capacity,” which “seems to be kind of pushing the limit right now,” according to Darling.

“Your staff is well thought of, and they are viewed as being pretty busy,” Parks said. “You have a really robust agenda on your plate, you have a lot to do, and your staff is very professional and well-positioned to do that. But it is pretty challenging. You could look at additional staff resources, or it could be that your strategic plan process keeps that in mind and begins to prioritize some of these efforts that are coming your way.”