Candidates for Columbia County Board of Commissioners met in Rainier this past week at a forum hosted by the Rainier and Clatskanie Chambers of Commerce. Frank Hupp, president of the local chapter of Oregon Hunter’s Association, moderated the discussion.
There are four prospects in the race, including incumbent Henry Heimuller. Challengers include Port of St. Helens Commissioner Paulette Lichatowich, business owner Kimberly Johns, and Rainier resident Don Campbell. Candidates responded to a series of prepared questions, gave their backgrounds, and participated in a question-and-answer segment.
The following are select responses to prepared questions that candidates answered that evening on various topics. We will delve further into the details and differences in the election race as the vote approaches.
Don Campbell: Port Westward rezone and methanol proposal
Campbell said he doesn’t disagree with the rezone and sees a necessity for it to stimulate growth. However, he was concerned that the manner in which the rezone was designed left the potential for environmental contamination from heavy industry.
Calling attention to the possibility for huge liability to taxpayers and significant environmental impact, Campbell emphasized the proximity of development proposals to the Columbia River. He said a missing element from the rezone process was a committed individual or company that could explain better explain the aspects and effects of any given proposal.
“If the Port gets the right people in there then great, but if the wrong person gets in there, you can’t tell,” Campbell said. “It’s like renting your house to somebody, you don’t know what you’re going to get until three years later.”
“When an issue happens, it’s too late to fix it,” Campbell said. “I think there should have been a lot more review done.” Regarding the methanol plant proposal, Cambell said he was all for creating jobs, but would like the time to study the possible impacts on the local region.
Henry Heimuller: Job creation role for county commission
Citing his decision making experience on the Columbia County Board of Commission, Heimuller credited his colleagues, Commissioners Alex Tardif and Margaret Magruder, for working through the pros and cons of issues as a team to find the best solutions.
Heimuller recalled the closure of operations announced by Armstrong World Industries in St. Helens and said while some would call that a failure, he calls it an opportunity. He said county officials immediately reached out to the City of St. Helens and Columbia County Economic Team in hopes of finding a solution for the Armstrong problem.
“It wasn’t Columbia County, it wasn’t our workforce … the problem that they had was that their world market had changed,” Heimuller said.
The success from the meeting, according to Heimuller, came from Armstrong’s choice to put the property up for sale and repurposing instead of mothballing the location, leaving it idle for five years before putting it on the market.
“Would I rather have it open and running?” Heimuller said. “Absolutely, but those are the things we do on a regular basis.”
Heimuller also mentioned the county commission’s direct involvement with developing the Oregon Manufacturing Innovation Center in Scappoose, a massive industrial research and development project involving big-name firms and educational organizations.
Kimberly Johns: Job creation role for county commission
A local business owner, Johns said he moved his defense contracting company to St. Helens in 1991. Serving primarily the U.S. government, Johns said he has learned “you can work the United States government for money.” He said the federal government has funding and programs to entice businesses into Columbia County.
“For instance, we have enterprise zones here which help freeze property taxes for incoming businesses to make it attractive to be here,” Johns said.
He also mentioned labor surplus designations and small business administration loans in hub zones. Johns also said existing Columbia County companies could open export markets through defense program contracts.
“If you have an industry that leaves like Armstrong’s leaving, that can be zoned as a labor surplus zone,” he said. “Defense contractors have preference in certain contracting situations because they have a labor-surplused area”
Johns said county officials have a lot to do with job creation when they attract businesses to the area. He said zoning is a crucial aspect of growth and how companies spend federal funds. Johns said Columbia County would benefit from less cumbersome zoning and permitting processes.
Paulette Lichatowich: Port Westward rezone and methanol proposal
Opposed to the Port Westward rezone and the proposed methanol plant at the port, Lichatowich said the Pacific Northwest was rejecting fossil fuel projects as a region. She said moving forward with any fossil fuel projects would further isolate Columbia County.
“It’s a bad bet,” she said. “Investigations by the methanol company and the Port have not been done to determine the project’s worth and no permits have been issued – the due diligence has not been done.”
Rather than industry, Lichatowich said there should be more discussion around business development as a method of creating tax revenue. She said the planned developments at Port Westward would not create long-term jobs, but would put public health at risk and potentially destroy the environment, calling attention to the high-quality farmland in the area and the access to the Columbia River.
“There are better options for Columbia County to grow its economy,” Lichatowich said. “I support the farmers and ag businesses already operating here.”
Lichatowich said there was not enough talk about the wildlife that she said would be threatened by industrial development at Port Westward. She said the local environment stands as a legacy for future generations and should be given close attention.