NOAA ships boost Oregon coast town spirits, economy

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is relocating six research vessels to Oregon from Seattle next year, a move that will bring as many as 175 family-wage jobs to the coast.

Posted Jun. 23, 2010 at 2:00 AM

NEWPORT — Because she was curious, Charlotte Dinolt trudged up to Yaquina Bay State Park last weekend to watch the Bell M. Shimada cruise into port for the first time.
The brand-new ship is one of six research vessels the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is relocating to Oregon from Seattle next year, a move that will bring as many as 175 family-wage jobs to the coast.
Dinolt, who is an assistant manager at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, went to the overlook to catch a glimpse of her town’s future. At the park, Dinolt spotted a little girl with a NOAA T-shirt on. She asked the girl if she knew anyone on the ship, and the girl smiled broadly.
“My dad is the captain,” she said.
It was a reminder that Dinolt will be seeing some new faces around town soon: faces of people who will rent and buy houses; spend money at the restaurants, gas stations and grocery stores; enroll their children in local schools and invite their friends to visit friends who may need a place to stay overnight.
But Dinolt also knows that these are just the more obvious effects of the federal agency’s move to Oregon. Having NOAA’s homeport here also means work for contractors that repair vessels, income for the suppliers that provide those contractors with equipment, and potential improvements to air service to and from Newport. It also could mean an influx of all kinds of new businesses to build on the growing collaboration between the government and the ocean researchers already here at the Hatfield Marine Science Center and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.
Dinolt realizes that there are ripple effects that will stretch out for decades, which is why she and the proprietors of dozens of other businesses in town have kept their “Welcome NOAA” signs up after last weekend’s official groundbreaking and celebration.
“This is not just tourism dollars,” Dinolt said. “This is real money.”
The estimated annual benefit to Newport is $20 million, and that money will wind up in the pockets of all kinds of Newport residents.
People will buy specialty groceries and supplies from Mai’s Asian Market on Highway 20 at the edge of town. Owner Mai Shearer is confident of this because she already has had NOAA employees from Seattle in the store, relieved that they had options beyond the chain groceries.
“They live in a big city, and Asian food is more available there,” Shearer said. Seeing her store “makes them feel better to move here.”
They’ll eat at restaurants, such as the bayfront’s Local Ocean Seafoods, which puts an emphasis on Oregon-caught, sustainably harvested fish, an ethic that appeals to science-minded Seattle transplants, owner Al Pazar said.
They’ll need repairs to the ships, which is good timing for the Port of Toledo’s pending purchase of a shipyard, Port Manager Bud Shoemake said. NOAA’s ships are too big to make it up the Yaquina River to Toledo, and there is no shipyard in Newport. But Toledo’s revitalization of its shipyard, which has been shuttered since its Reedsport-based owner walked away from it in November 2008, means there’s a working maritime service industry in the region.
“We can go to them,” Shoemake said. “Ships that are 65 feet and bigger need an average of $350,000 a year in maintenance alone, and that’s not counting diesel and oil. We want to make sure we’re capturing that.”
The repairs will be done by local contractors as often as possible, NOAA officials say, which means work for local welders and welding outfitters, such as Industrial Welding Supply, where David Norman works as a sales manager. His company already provides the agency’s existing small facilities in the area with cryogenic and high-pressure gases such as oxyacetylene for cutting torches. He’ll sell that gas and the equipment it uses either directly to NOAA or to other contractors working on the ships.
“A lot of the support companies that will do work for them are customers of ours,” Norman said. “As their business picks up, so does ours.”
There’s expected to be so much work for local contractors that Lincoln County is teaming up with Oregon Coast Community College to offer workshops for local businesses about how to attain the proper certifications to do jobs for the federal government, county Commissioner Don Lindly said.
While those economic impacts are certain, others are a little more fuzzy. Some employees will have the option to remain in Seattle, and those who work on the ships may live wherever they choose, so it’s unclear how many people will actually relocate to Newport. That’s why area real estate agents’ optimism is cautious, for now.
“We won’t know until next spring,” when NOAA’s employees are required to notify the government whether they’ll move, said Bonnie Saxton of Advantage Real Estate. “But we’ve already had a number of families calling and wanting to stay notified of what the market is and what’s available.”
One call came from a family in Texas, Saxton said, from an employee who works on a NOAA boat but who didn’t move to Seattle, because housing prices were too expensive there. Newport prices are much cheaper, which is why sellers who have been frustrated by the anemic housing market of late are hopeful.
“All ranges of the price spectrum, from the little $200,000 starter home to the million-dollar home, everyone thinks a NOAA person is going to buy their home,” Saxton said. “We just have to be patient until it gets here.”
Patience is a key virtue for Bonnie Serkin, chief operating officer of Landwaves Inc., which is set to begin construction this summer on 40 residential lots that are part of a 60-acre mixed-use sustainable community called Wilder next to the new campus of Oregon Coast Community College.
The property is just south of the NOAA project, so it’s serendipitous, to say the least, that the agency is moving to Oregon.
“NOAA is only five minutes from Wilder,” Serkin said. “People will be able to get there without even going on the highway.” At this point, Serkin is letting NOAA’s employees discover Wilder on their own.
“We’re not bombarding them, because it seems a bit rude,” Serkin said. “They know they have to move, and in general they know we’re out here. The timing is quite perfect.”
Even those who don’t move to Newport could have an impact on Oregon. Last Thursday, state officials were considering proposals for transportation grants, including one that would subsidize flights from Newport to Seattle, with a quick stop but no change of planes in Salem, Lindly said. If NOAA employees decide they’d rather commute by air, that would give them an easy way to do it.
In sum, the feeling in Newport is one of “euphoria,” said Onno Husing, executive director of the Oregon Coastal Zone Management Agency. Husing is quick to say, though, that Newport already had a lot going for it.
“This is building on a diverse economic climate,” he said. “We already had a strong Oregon State University presence, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lab, the aquarium, and the NOAA folks who were already here,” Husing said. “You’re not taking a community and completely transforming it into something it wasn’t before. What you’re really doing is building on a trend.”

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