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Island needs wise stewardship

Two Views • City's West Hayden Island plan should avoid pitfalls to serve Portland region's economic needs
by: Christopher Onstott West Hayden Island is an ideal spot for the Port of Portland to build another Columbia River marine trade terminal, but also prime habitat for threatened salmon, birds and other species. Two My View writers weigh in on the controversial topic.

Thank you, Steve Law, for digging into this issue on West Hayden Island (Messy process clouds Hayden plans, March 3).

This 'mess of a process' has been able to continue for years for one simple reason: The Port of Portland has framed its proposal, to develop West Hayden Island into a major deep-water marine industrial development complex in the shadow of River Gate, to require a political decision from the city of Portland.

But in fact it requires no less than the wisest of fact-based decisions in a well-practiced and highly structured business planning process, because many of our most prized resources are about to be put at serious risk.

Specifically, the best approach is to use the most highly validated and reliable facts available to thoroughly consider, in a dispassionate and apolitical business planning process, one thing: How shall the city of Portland make a substantial investment (in the hundreds of millions of dollars) in managing its high-value assets on West Hayden Island to achieve the highest social, economic and environmental results that are most valued by our current and future citizens?

Since 1998, when the port first made a run at this West Hayden Island development idea, a meaningful decision has not been possible because of how the decision-making process has been constructed to address this question of West Hayden Island's future. During this time, the port has alluded to only the vaguest of references in addressing: (a) what market demands will be served by this marine industrial complex; (b) what specifically will be built on this 825-acre tract of urban natural wildlife habitat in the Columbia River flood plain; (c) how much will it cost (economically, socially and environmentally); (d) who will pay how much for what; (e) what are the most highly likely results of this decision over the next 20 to 50 years; and (f) who benefits in the promised return on investment and in other ways by this decision?

Imagine this scenario: A major corporation today comes to a highly qualified investment firm and pitches a startup proposal that puts at risk the investment firm's high-value environmental assets and a couple of hundred million dollars. The risk capital is said to be spent by the proposing corporation to attempt to build and manage something that is undefined, untested and the profits from which are completely unsubstantiated.

Chances are that corporate pitch team wouldn't even be allowed to set up their projector to start the proposal presentation. Yet, this is exactly what the port and the city have been doing for the past 13 years, at great cost (several million dollars) to the taxpayers and a great waste of time and citizen confidence in what should be a rational and fact-based business planning process.

Clearly, what should be done for the city, as investor, to decide the best future use of West Hayden Island requires a business decision using a standard business-planning and decision-making process that considers these factors:

First, what are the city's specific assets to be at risk and how are they valued by all current and future citizen investors of Portland; second, what high-value results do the citizen investors want from the very wisest management of these assets; third, what most valid and reliable evidence must we have, and by what rational process will we use this information; fourth, what will all of the costs and performance evidence be in this entire planning, implementation and asset-management process; fifth, what are the independently assessed management qualifications of the Port of Portland, as applicant, and its track record of success in similar projects; sixth, what is the likelihood this effort will achieve the valued results we expect; and seventh, who will benefit, and in what ways will this enhance the value of the entire Portland community.

I encourage the City Council, through the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, to redefine this decision-making relationship and process with the Port of Portland and reset the business-planning and qualification process. Who knows, in following this more apolitical process, the city may discover the great value of a regional nature park on West Hayden Island as a destination attraction across the Pacific Northwest. That alternative would preserve and conserve the area's urban natural wildlife habitat, promote environmental education and responsible marine recreation, be significantly less costly with far less investment risk, generate many more jobs across the region, and be much more consistent with the values that define Portland.

The city is solely in the role of the local investment firm here, managing its citizen investors' most-valued assets to achieve all of Portland's expected results. That puts the Port of Portland, not in a direct decision-making role as it is now (to politically influence what it wants Portland's City Council to finance on West Hayden Island), but as a corporate entity pitching a startup business proposal for a new industrial development in an environmentally protected area.

Consider, too, the environmental regulations and potential lawsuits related to the port's current pitch that alone may cripple such a project, or would run its planning costs off the charts.

What respected and responsible investment firm do you know that would take the time, and risk a huge investment of your money, on a regional developer with an inconsistent profitability record without first requiring a detailed and well-documented business plan before ever inviting them into the conference room? If you do know one, there's a bridge in Brooklyn they probably want to buy, too.

Timme Helzer is founder and chairman of the Friends of West Hayden Island and a Hayden Island-based business management consultant.