American Empress ready to make waves in East Clark County

'Largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi' will stop at Port of Camas-Washougal dock twice a week, beginning June 8

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The Port of Camas-Washougal has struck a deal with an Indiana-based cruise line to bring the American Empress, the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi River, to East Clark County twice a week, starting in June 2022. (Post-Record file photo)

The Port of Camas-Washougal is set to welcome the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi River to East Clark County this summer.

Port commissioners approved a contract with the American Queen Steamboat Company (AQSC) during a virtual meeting on Wednesday, March 16, bringing the American Empress sternwheeler to the region in an effort to increase tourism and provide local businesses with a much-needed boost.

“Their company is very big about coming into a community and really being a part of that community. They see it as a positive thing,” Port business development manager Derk Jaeger said during the meeting. “They are really all about supporting events and things that we have in our region. I think it’s a great opportunity to partner with a company like this that will have a good economic impact for our region. Plus it will be kind of cool to see a big paddlewheel boat outside at the marina.”

The Indiana-based AQSC deploys the American Empress for nine-day, one-way trips between Vancouver and Spokane, and seven-day roundtrip voyages from Vancouver, with stops in Astoria, Oregon; Stevenson, The Dalles, Oregon; Richland, Washington; and Clarkston, Washington.

The American Empress has capacity for 224 guests and features four decks and 112 staterooms, including single rooms for solo travelers and luxury suites.

“We are thrilled to be coming to Camas-Washougal,” AQSC director of port services Shelly Hartfield said during the meeting. “It’s been something that we’ve been looking at for five years, so it’s wonderful to see it come to fruition.”

Beginning June 8, AQSC will use the Port’s new and improved breakwater dock at the Parker’s Landing Marina twice a week, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Wednesday and Saturday through November.

“They typically rent a motorcoach when their passengers want to get off and visit the local area, so we’ll have a staging area for them to pick up their passengers,” Jaeger said. “They’ll be rotating 20-minute cycles at different stops throughout the community, so it’s a great opportunity for the passengers to see the local community and support it and spend some money.”

The Port is working to make improvements to its breakwater dock at the request of AQSC officials, who told Port leaders in 2018 that they’d prefer the docks they use to feature Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) access and a safe and reliable way for older passengers to get on and off the ship.

AQSC personnel will use the dock and other Port facilities to embark and disembark passengers, bring supplies onto the vessel, off-load trash, and perform minor maintenance work and other activities, according to the contract.

“In addition to the rate that they pay ($360 per stop), they will be paying a one-time $25,000 payment to help out with (certain items),” Jaeger said. “For instance, they’re requesting some splash guards put in on the breakwater. We’re also looking at improving the walking path portion where they’ll be staging their ships as well. They will also be paying their own utilities, so we will be metering that.”

Port, city leaders hope for financial windfall

AQSOC passengers typically spend between $135 and $175 per stop, according to Jaeger.

“Their vessel would carry upwards of 200, but if you (say) 180 passengers each spending nearly $135 over the course of one year, about 40 stops, that’s about $1 million spent in our local community,” he said. “It’s not significant in terms of lease revenue for the Port, but we do value the impact for our community and the business within our community.”

The Port commissioners enthusiastically expressed their approval of the agreement during the meeting.

“I, of course, am fully in favor of this lease. I think it’s just amazing for the community,” commissioner John Spencer said. “My ‘note for the moment’ is that $1 million in economic impact compares really well with the $1.3 million that we have in tax revenue. Talk about an immediate return to the community — yeah, I just like those numbers.”

Bringing the American Empress and its passengers to Camas and Washougal is “an economic benefit to our community,” according to commissioner Larry Keister.

“The Port is in the process of trying to become a destination location with our waterfront development, and this plays right into what our goals are, to bring tourists to our community (so they can) spend money, travel on, and hopefully return sometime later on to spend more time here,” he said. “I’m excited about moving forward with this project.”

Washougal and Camas city council members also expressed their support, adding that the cities and their businesses must be prepared for an influx of visitors this summer.

“My mind’s already spinning about attracting tourism to downtown Washougal and downtown Camas, and what we can do to better welcome the guests when they come,” Washougal city councilmember David Stuebe said. “I like the idea of the motorcoaches, being able to shuttle (the passengers) around to the different advantages that we have in Camas and Washougal — the dike trail, Cottonwood Park, Pendleton (Woolen Mill Outlet Store), the heritage museum, downtown Camas. There’s a lot of great things for these people to come and see. But June 8 is pretty soon, so we have to make sure we’re prepared for that. That’s a lot of people to, all of a sudden, flood into a town.”

Camas City Council member Bonnie Carter said she is “excited and willing to talk more” about how the agreement could benefit East Clark County.

“I think this is a great opportunity for both cities to show tourists what we have,” she said. “(We want to) get on board to support this because we need to notify all of the business owners in these areas. They need to know and be prepared for a potential ‘X’ number of tourists that are going to be visiting their businesses so they don’t miss that opportunity.”

Hartfield said that AQSC motorcoach drivers will solidify their Camas and Washougal routes “in the next few weeks.”

“We have an incredible short excursion team that works continuously with communities to find the best places to come to,” she said. “They are wonderful about giving all of the advance notice, the number of guests that are on board for that particular voyage, so (business owners) have an idea of how to plan. We want to start working with (city officials) to identify those locations that our guests may want to visit. We try to offer them a lot of different things. We find that we always have to have incredible shopping stops because they do like to spend money in communities. We also like to have some sort of historical site to it as well.”

Commissioners ‘recognize the environmental impact’ of vessel

The commissioners also expressed their concerns about the potential impact of the vessel’s diesel emissions.

“We’ve had some discussions in the past about the environmental impact of the boat, primarily that it goes through a lot of diesel as it chugs up and down the river,” Spencer said. “When we went out and toured it (on Monday, March 14), I did ask some questions about how they treat their wastewater and garbage and whatnot, and it actually sounds like a pretty clean operation in most ways.

“But global warming and emissions are still a big thing. My recommendation is that we go ahead and improve this and immediately turn around and start working with them and make some suggestions or perhaps help them find funding to switch over to electric if they can or find opportunities for offsets. We want to recognize the environmental impact that we’re having and try to find a way to lessen it.”

Commissioner Cassi Marshall said that the environmental concerns “weigh heavy” on her.

“I also think things are changing so rapidly with state and federal legislation, and there may be opportunities for funding that maybe we can help with,” Marshall said. “We have Jennifer Taylor on board now, and she is in the know about all kinds of environmental opportunities.

“Also, I know our Port, and Jennifer specifically, works closely with the Port of Vancouver, which has an excellent environmental team, and is also the starting spot (for the American Empress’ Columbia River tours). We have really good partners with this, so I’m hopeful that we can move forward with some kind of mitigation down the line.”