Recently our Coos Bay World’s editorial page carried another one of those grim rants that have cost us so much already. In a white-hot letter, Neil Marran of North Bend thundered at local “naysayers” who oppose every economic development he favors, including LNG and the railroad. (He also still considered coal exports a viable enterprise too, thus proving he is not well informed.) Regardless, he challenged the naysayers to: “give us an industry that will get us on our feet.” But not tourism: “Has any tourist ever bought a washer and dryer, an automobile, carpeting or a wheelbarrow?”
Well – I’ve got news for him. First the bad news: someone who demands that somebody “give us an industry that will get us on our feet” knows nothing about economics or history, either one. But then, that’s equally true of the eighteen economic development agencies that have tried to give us industries since the mid-seventies. Even their final ace in the hole will do us no good. That’s the LNG export terminal, whose only reason for coming to Coos Bay was that nobody else wanted it.
Way back in 1974, activists were calling for the Port of Coos Bay to hire someone “who knows all the angles,” and would “declare war on the Port of Portland.” Superman was promptly hired, and then another, and another, at rising super-salaries, but all they ever did was waste super-sums without delivering the new factories that people like Neil Marran were expecting. Still, some growth was achieved because, while ship traffic declined by 90%, the number of economic development agencies grew to eighteen. One way this bureaucratic Kudzu vine avoided being cut back was by always blaming local “naysayers” and environmentalists for its failures. Today the town still rings with condemnations of “negativists” and “naysayers” and the Sierra Club and Earth Justice, although I suspect that those organizations don’t mind getting a bit of undeserved credit.
North Spit – L to R barge slip, Southport Lumber and DB Western with the T-dock
What also started back in the seventies was the local development-mafia’s obsession with industrializing the North Spit, where the Port of Coos Bay happened to own 280 acres of undeveloped land. Oddly enough, Coos Bay’s many industrial closures ensured that there was no shortage of vacant industrial land which, unlike the Port’s hoped-for empire-in-the-sand, already had utilities and access. Moreover, the North Spit’s location, directly upwind from most of Coos County’s population, virtually guaranteed that locating obnoxious industries there would provoke public opposition.
Even so, since 1974 the development-mafia, with the Port out front, has promoted these industrial plans for the Spit, and all for naught: garbage-burning, fish-processing, coal export (1980), undersea mining, fabricating oil field equipment, a nickel smelter, chromium smelter, pulp mill, steel mill, LNG import plant, container import facility, and yet another coal export terminal in 2011. That none became reality was not due to a lack of money, since millions were spent on “studies” and “infrastructure,” with even more millions promised if the shifty prospects did build their plants.
The reason all those schemes bombed was that most were promoter’s scams or unserious proposals by sly corporations. Typical promoter’s scams were the 1980 coal export plan and the 1987 chromium smelter proposal. Both were stock market plays concocted by people who didn’t know what they were talking about; both got the royal treatment. Similar honors were heaped on the corporate proposals, including the 1990 Daishowa pulp mill, 1999 Nucor steel mill and 2007 Maersk container terminal. Those companies’ real agenda was to use Coos Bay to gain subsidies elsewhere. But they couldn’t have done it without the myopic arrogance of Coos Bay’s leaders, who still believe that their town can become a world port and industrial center. Anybody who lives elsewhere and studies the map would consider it lunacy, but it’s true.
Now they tell us that the Jordan Cove LNG export project on the North Spit will be our ultimate Superman. LNG’s few permanent jobs won’t make up those lost from 200 harbor closures a year for the highly dangerous LNG tankers, and from the widespread fear of being burned alive when the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami hit the plant, releasing an enormous floating fireball. With the obvious exclusion of economic development dignitaries, sensible people understand that with half our cities aflame you can forget about fire departments, especially with roads, bridges and utilities destroyed by the earthquake. Our leaders resemble the officials of the Japanese nuclear plants who refused to believe tsunamis could cause meltdowns. They had a 19-foot seawall around their power plant, so why worry? When the tsunami hit, its waves were between 43 and 49 feet. The wiped out the power plant for the nuclear reactors’ cooling pumps, and the rest is ominous history. (In some parts of the Japanese coast the tsunami waves reached 133 feet.) Whatever height they may reach here, most likely they will not just enter Coos Bay through the harbor entrance but run right over the Spit, instantly filling the LNG spill-containment area around Jordan Cove’s LNG tanks with water, and heading for Jordan Cove’s power plant next. In partial recognition, Jordan Cove is now planning to build its power plant on a 30 ft high artificial hill, created with dredge spoils. It is well known that serious earthquakes, such as those that have hit this coast at average intervals of 240 years, will cause land to be suddenly pushed up or lowered, while sodden soils may liquefy. The last such earthquake hit in 1700. Geologically, the North Spit is a sand shoal that became covered with dunes, and I doubt there are any geologists or engineers who will vouch for the permanent stability of Jordan Cove’s mound.
But the worst aspect of Coos Bay’s industrial obsession has been its foreclosure of more modest but also more viable options. While every other coastal town grew, people stayed away from Coos Bay which became a mini-Detroit, the only part of western Oregon mired in a permanent depression.
Neil Marran and his fellow-detractors of tourism are wrong. For a scenic place like this, tourism would have been an excellent first step toward development. That’s because people, not development agencies, are the key to economic growth.
Attract tourists, and if they like what they see they will settle in Coos Bay instead of driving on. To attract them, we need to make the town look good. But we can’t, because our most outrageous piece of corporate welfare, the Port’s resurrected, rusty, graffiti-covered, $63 million railroad, blocks all re-development of our derelict waterfront with its rotting docks. And every visitor notices.
But some day, when the Port Commission runs out of other people’s money, it will have to sell the rails, the ties and the land. That will be the day developers move in, and the bay starts looking better. More people will settle in our beautiful area. Some will be retirees, with three times the economic impact of one industrial job. Others will be younger folks, who will start businesses and . . . create JOBS! I can hear the carpers now: “What kind of businesses, what kind of jobs?” I don’t know, but that’s how real, sustainable growth gets started, and once it does, all kinds of things can happen. All it takes is one small leap of faith.
Wim de Vriend’s recently published book “The JOB Messiahs – how government destroys our prosperity and our freedoms to ‘create jobs’, has been the basis for many of his contributions on this blog.
The JOB Messiahs is for sale at the office of The Sentinel in Coquille, at Farr’s Hardware in Coos Bay, at the Blue Heron restaurant in Coos Bay, and at Books-by-the-Bay in North Bend.