As local officials wait for the former Umatilla Chemical Depot to return to local control, they are fielding inquiries from companies interested in developing the industrially zoned portion of the property.
During a meeting of the Columbia Development Authority board on July 31, executive director Greg Smith said one potential employer would bring in 1,200 jobs at full build-out. He said he asked what kind of wage levels the company would expect to pay and is waiting for an answer.
“One thing I’m extremely sensitive to is that I want to recruit companies that would build our economy,” he said.
The CDA is a partnership between Umatilla County, Morrow County, Port of Morrow, Port of Umatilla and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. While part of the former chemical depot has been turned into an Oregon National Guard training facility, the U.S. Army plans to turn over part of the depot for a wildlife refuge managed by the tribes and nearly 4,000 acres for the CDA to market as industrial, commercial and agricultural use.
As Smith pointed out with the mystery employer that could bring 1,200 jobs to the community, not all economic development is equal when it comes to things like paying a family wage. He said it will be up to the CDA to weigh all offers, and to consider things like the impact an employer will have on schools, fire districts and other local services.
Board member Don Russell, who represents Morrow County on the CDA board, said his county was “extremely proud” of how their average wage compares to other counties in Oregon. If a company wants to come in and pay 130% of the average wage, great, he said.
“If they want to pay 65%, I’m not interested,” he said.
Kim Puzey, who represents the Port of Umatilla on the board, said “just dropping” 1,200 jobs into the Hermiston area in one go would probably not work out well for an employer, given the workforce and housing currently available, but he said companies will likely be able to figure that out for themselves as they do due diligence.
Smith said as he fields interest from developers in various industries, he has kept in mind the board’s mandate that the depot property should be an alternative to other local industrial lands if those lands don’t completely meet a company’s needs, instead of trying to beat them out for viable projects.
“We’re here to collaborate and partner, not compete,” he said.
After years of working through agreements on everything from water rights to asbestos abatement, the CDA and CTUIR recently signed a memorandum of agreement over cultural and historical preservation — the last major hoop to jump through. Now all that is left is for the proper state and federal agencies to sign off on that agreement and for the transfer deed to be written up and push through the final layers of federal bureaucratic red tape for approval.
Last Wednesday, Smith proposed forming subcommittees that can prepare recommendations the CDA can act on as soon as the transfer is complete. He said one subcommittee should tackle preservation of the depot’s Oregon Trail ruts. For the ruts running through the industrial section, he said they would likely preserve about 200 yards, with a public parking area, picnic tables and kiosks.
A second subcommittee, Smith said, should start working with the Oregon Department of Transportation on planning for a new offramp leading from Interstate 82 to the industrial portion of the depot. A third subcommittee could work on water issues, including ways to coordinate with the Oregon Military Department on plans for fire suppression.
“I want to put together these subcommittees now, so when the depot does transfer we’re ready to implement these things,” he said.
A final suggestion Smith had for the board was that near the beginning of 2020 they should begin discussing how they might use roughly $1 million in “state of the art” tools and equipment they are inheriting. He suggested creation of a regional STEM (Science, Technology, Engineer and Math) center might benefit the region.
“We need to start thinking in those terms, of how do we build something that will benefit everyone,” he said.
After an executive session, the board wrapped up the meeting by approving a five-year renewal of an $8,000 annual lease of 40 acres of farmland to Columbia Basin Farming.