"Coos Bay," Port manager Steve Felkins told potential tourists in August 1978, "is not oriented to making you people happy two weeks in August," and he haughtily bragged of how Coos Bay preferred real jobs, not tourism jobs. His dismal view of our tourist potential was shared by the Port commissioners, who in 1979 concocted a plan to keep tourists out of Charleston. By making parking impossible, they would stop recreational fishermen from using the boat ramp. And with usage down they'd be able to get rid of that ramp altogether, so they could fill Charleston with fish plants. County Commissioner Emmett praised the plan as "wise."
"This land is too valuable to waste for the parking of cars," he gushed.
Then in 1980, County Commissioner Beebe, who earlier had promoted a garbage-burning plant for the North Spit, rammed through a county approval for a fish waste plant in Charleston. During the hearing he bullied and denigrated the plan's critics, but before it went broke, that highly subsidized nuisance proved them right by blanketing Charleston with the stench of a World War II crematorium. When locals and tourists protested the constant assaults on their noses, the Port asked the plant's manager to decide if their complaints had "any validity." Guess how that worked out.
When Felkins departed, after an 8-year tenure that he himself hinted may have been too long, his legacy included a Port close to bankruptcy, and a long list of failed development plans. That list included the infamous Crosline Ferry, the idle T-dock, and a speculative coal export terminal that never had a chance.
The next Port manager with delusions of grandeur was Frank Martin, who arrived from Chicago in 1983 bragging of his determination "to attract labor intensive, high employment projects that will put people to work at good wages." Martin steadfastly refused to attract industries he described as "not job intensive." That sounded good to Coos Bay's denigrators of small business, but when in 1988 Martin left for greener pastures he had produced nothing except more failed big plans and more debt. A list of his industrial development failures, too long to print here, included undersea mining, oil equipment fabrication and a chromium smelter, all for the North Spit.
Around the time Martin left, the Port and the county were secretly scheming to attract a huge pulp mill to the North Spit, directly upwind from our population centers, and drawing millions of gallons a day from Tenmile Lake. The pulp mill plan failed too, not because of the lively local opposition, of which there was plenty, but because it was never serious. It was just one more example of Coos Bay's industrial boosters being fooled by corporate schemers playing one town against another.
But gambling with our future is addictive. Since the pulp mill we've seen great excitement over a steel mill, a container terminal and Jordan Cove. The only one still alive is JC, but the LNG market has sunk its chances close to zero.
Even so, officious denigration and neglect continue to depress tourism, retiree settlement and small business development. One typical example was our politicians' refusal to consider leaving the wrecked New Carissa on the beach as a tourist attraction. Another was the ridiculously expensive revival of the idle, unneeded railroad that blocks all redevelopment of our waterfront.
Given all this history, it was refreshing to read a recent editorial urging us to keep striving for economic development, regardless of whether or not Jordan Cove is built. Especially refreshing was the editor's advice to use our area's real strengths, ". . . rather than expend inordinate amounts of energy wishing for a windfall."
Quite so; but remember that it's been ten years since the Jordan Cove promoters first came calling, dangling their windfall in front of our fawning officials. All told we have now wasted 40 years, betting on a never-ending line of lousy horses.
Who can doubt that Oregonians east of the Cascades, along with most of the world, would love to have access to our scenery and our recreational opportunities? Those wonderful assets could have enticed tourists into becoming new residents, and new residents with money and enterprise would have supported and started new businesses. Solid, sustainable growth would have been the result, the kind seen in Astoria and in Newport, in Florence and in Bandon.
What we have instead is the only stagnant economy in all of western Oregon, the worst real estate market, the highest unemployment, a rundown waterfront . . . . and more. Forty years of "economic development" have prevented an amazing amount of economic development, all because our officials bet on the horse called Industrial Obsession, the one that needs to be sent to the glue factory because it has never yet paid off.
Local former restaurateur and writer Wim de Vriend is the author of “The JOB Messiahs.” He has been an observer and critic of Coos Bay development projects for more than 30 years.