Event sets tone for talks about related $20 million center

St. Helens tourism officials have locked in plans for the city to host a maritime heritage festival in July, which could serve as a catalyst for later construction of a maritime center in the city, said Chris Finks, the city's tourism director.

Finks' marketing company, FinksInc., had helped organize and promote the nonprofit Maritime Heritage Coalition's festival for three years, between 2008 and 2010, in Portland. Last year the festival didn't take place, Finks said, due to the high cost of securing a Portland venue.

Finks, who took over as St. Helens' tourism director in September, said St. Helens in many ways is a better fit for the festival.

'[The city] has a reputation for having really nice docks and being a friendly community,' he said. The Maritime Heritage Coalition unanimously voted in October to try to move the festival to St. Helens, he said.

The festival is scheduled for July 13, 14 and 15. Finks said it drew about 5,000 visitors during its first year in Portland, a figure that climbed to as many as 10,000 in the second year. He said many were traditional tourists as the state defines the term, which means visitors who traveled from more than 50 miles distance and spent the night.

He said St. Helens' dock capacity is more robust than what was available in Portland, at better prices, and the fact the city has a historical waterfront adds to the site's attractiveness.

As for the festival itself, Finks said it would showcase the Columbia River's and Oregon's many perspectives regarding maritime traffic.

Some marquee crafts expected to be on display and open for tours are a World War II 'PT' boat, a 180-foot-long steamer and a historic paddle wheeler. Displays and interactive activities will have ecological and native-user focuses, the latter made possible through participation from the Confederate Tribes of Grand Ronde, Finks said.

He said sponsorships have been the festival's primary funding source, which he anticipates to continue.

'It's been pretty self-sustaining,' he said.

Beyond the festival, Finks said exploration of a concept to build a maritime center in Olde Towne St. Helens is occurring.

One possible location for the center would be the 16.9-acre site of the former Boise Cascade veneer plant, located south of the city's Columbia View Park.

Finks said he has had no discussions about that property with Boise officials and was careful to make no implications to that effect, though he said the property, considering its access to the waterfront, does make a lot of sense.

Boise officials in prior discussions with the Spotlight said they are open to discussions regarding the property, though it is not listed for sale.

In addition to St. Helens, Finks said the Maritime Heritage Coalition is looking at two possible locations in Portland. St. Helens, he said, is more welcoming.

'St. Helens is just a really, really wonderful fit for this, and it would transform a pretty special downtown,' he said. He said it would be complimentary, and not competitive, with the maritime museum in Astoria, and envisions it as an ecological and cultural learning center, with a possible restaurant, a boat-building school and a docking location for some of the coalition's historic watercraft.

Finks said an early estimate of the potential investment in the center is $15 million or as much as $20 million, most of which he anticipates would be paid for via private financing and state and federal grants. He also said Oregon tribal interests in the center could open the door for other financing opportunities, such as tapping tribe-specific state funding pools.

One other possible funding source could be a portion of tourism dollars collected as a percentage of the city's transient room tax on hotels.

Chad Olsen, St. Helens' city administrator, said the tax results in roughly $65,000 in annual revenue, a portion of which is used to satisfy Finks' salary as the city's tourism director and other tourism- related annual expenses. He said there is as much as $300,000 in reserve, money long-envisioned for use as supporting revenue for construction of a conference center-type facility.

Olsen said he views the center concept as being in the early exploratory phase.

Finks said the goal in 2012 is to nail down a site for the center. Also, he said the tourism committee is exploring development of a strategic plan and budget for tourism less dependant on the transient tax that attracts more sponsorship dollars.

'The key is that we really want to leverage the budget,' he said.

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