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Federal shutdown leaves port with questions

Staff want to know limits on $75,000 from Department of Commerce


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The Port of St. Helens office in Columbia City, at the southern end of the property for which the port received a $75,000 grant award from the Economic Development Administration to study potential uses.The partial shutdown of the federal government has left Port of St. Helens staff hanging.

Scott Jensen, planning coordinator for the port, said the federal Economic Development Administration extended a $75,000 grant to the port last month for it to use in studying potential applications for the Columbia City Industrial Park.

But five days after the grant award, the federal fiscal year ended with no agreement between Republicans in the House of Representatives and Democrats in the Senate on a budget resolution to keep the government funded. As a result, many federal agencies and bureaus were shut down — including the EDA, the website of which now bears a warning that information may be out of date and staff unavailable due to lack of funding — and more than 800,000 employees were furloughed.

That poses a problem for the port.

Jensen said port staff have some questions they want to ask the EDA about the grant before Patrick Trapp, port executive director, signs the contract to accept it. Federal grants often come with certain stipulations and restrictions, and while Jensen said this grant appears to be fairly loose, he wants to be sure.

“They’re more in the nature of clarifying questions,” Jensen said Wednesday, Oct. 9. As an example, he said port staff members believe they are allowed to use the grant, which is for “technical assistance” and not job creation, for a feasibility study that may lead to the port deciding to develop the property in a way that will generate jobs — but they have not been able to confirm that interpretation with the EDA.

“You know, I’m 99 percent sure, but I want to ask the question just to be 100 percent,” Jensen said.

The EDA must receive the grant agreement with Trapp’s signature on it by Oct. 25, according to Jensen. That meant the Port Commission had to adopt a resolution giving Trapp permission to sign it at Wednesday’s meeting, he said, or the port risked losing the grant altogether.

The resolution noted that “staff is still seeking clarification on a few items, but this effort is hampered by the federal government shutdown; and ... we have been awarded the grant and need to be able to sign the grant contract.”

Port commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the resolution Wednesday with little discussion.

Commissioner Chris Iverson praised Jensen for his work in procuring the $75,000.

“That’s a nice grant,” he said.

Jensen said afterward that he hopes the federal government will be understanding if the shutdown continues through the Oct. 25 deadline with the port’s questions unanswered.

“I don’t want to say, ‘We were waiting on you,’” said Jensen. “I’d much rather say, ‘We’ve done our part, and we were waiting on you.’”

The feasibility study is planned to examine what the port could do with 45 acres of available land in the middle portion of its 93-acre property in Columbia City, on the east side of Highway 30 and the Portland and Western Railroad tracks.

Jensen said the port has been working with the city on potential zoning changes for the property and may consider a whole range of options, such as a grain terminal or vehicle transloading, that take advantage of the property’s rail and river access. He said the port has ruled out a coal terminal for the property.

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