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Considerations beyond Port Westward

The story of Seely Mint Farm north of Clatskanie is increasingly a story of success for Columbia County. In fact, Seely Mint, which is a family-owned 450-acre organic mint farm, harbors real potential to place Columbia County on the national — even the international — map in way could deliver massive marketing potential for the county, should its leaders and economic development officials seize the opportunity.

Mike Seely, the owner of Seely Mint Farm, reported last week that Whole Foods Market, which began distribution of Seely Mint’s products late last year, has tapped his business as one that reinforces the story of the grocer’s branded image.

Last week, in fact, an official with Whole Foods, which is headquartered in Austin, Texas, and had sales topping $13 billion in 2013, reported to Seely that the company pitched Seely Mint products to editors of publications including Oprah Magazine, Family Circle, Parade, Women’s Health, Every Day with Rachael Ray and several others that carry household names.

On Monday, Seely anticipates meeting with a reporter from Bloomberg Business News, even as Seely Mint is heading into the heart of its harvest, which will extend over the next two weeks, he said.

For Columbia County and local businesses in Scappoose, St. Helens, Clatskanie and all points surrounding and in between, this is an opportunity to capitalize on the agricultural heritage in Columbia County, one that paints a picture of Columbia County’s vast natural beauty and bounty. Considering Whole Foods has locations in Canada and the United Kingdom among its portfolio of 386 stores, the relationship with Seely Mint has the potential to give Columbia County a positive international presence, one that allows other businesses to build and grow alongside the mint farm’s blossoming reputation for quality organic mint and chocolate products.

An unfortunate aspect has been Seely’s account that he is more and more feeling like an obstacle in Columbia County. He has said on numerous occasions that port, county and state officials in Columbia County have considered his farm, which leases 300 acres at Port Westward from the Port of St. Helens, as an obstacle to industrial aspirations there. Indeed, Seely is party to a lawsuit filed in opposition to a recent port land-use revision to allow more industrial growth at Port Westward, and has publicly stated that he would have little choice to uproot should any aspect of the coal industry find a firm footing near his farm operations.

On a brighter note, Seely has reported positive interactions with Portland General Electric and oil-transportation company Global Partners LP, despite the fact he said the oil trains have led to long delays in his farm operations. Such interactions lend credence to the idea that industrial operations can co-exist with Columbia County’s other legacy trades and vocations, and that Columbia County does not need to have, and should not have, an all-or-nothing industrial approach to economic development, as seems to be the sole focus of some economic development officials.

This week, in fact, Columbia County Economic Team Director Chuck Daughtry said, “I think what we really are working on though is all the activity at Port Westward. Port Westward is kind of the key to the county. It’s where all [emphasis added] the jobs are going to reside. We like retail and tourism, all those industries are good, but really the backbone of the economic structure is the industrial base.”

Port Westward Industrial Park has long been the economic development answer to the many questions posed by PGE’s closure of the Trojan Nuclear Plant in 1993. It no doubt made clear sense at the time; as an energy producing plant closes — one that employed around 1,500 people — the apparent logical solution was to start the process toward establishing a second energy-focused industrial park in its place, this time one that is publicly owned and controlled.

As Port Westward Industrial Park begins to take off some 20 years later, we believe it is misguided to embrace it at the expense of the many other opportunities for growth and development that exist elsewhere in Columbia County, including opportunities at Scappoose Industrial Airpark and other clusters, such as the agricultural promise now clearly displayed by Seely Mint Farm. Consider that, not too long ago, the Willamette Valley had only scrappy, nascent dreams for its wine production and tourism trades. Likewise, consider and prioritize all aspects of economic development in Columbia County, not just those that promise wheelbarrows of future money through the transportation, processing and, ultimately, exportation of our nation’s natural resources.