Activity on the rise at the Port of Kalama

Port of KalamaLiz Newman points out a cluster of totem poles along the Columbia River, adjacent to Marine Park at the Port of Kalama.

“The tallest in the U.S.,” she says of an eagle-topped pole. Then Newman checks herself. It might not be the tallest; someone told her one in California may be a tad taller. But the single-log totem pole, some 140 feet tall and crafted in the 1960s by Don Lelooska, an American Indian, is an impressive sight nonetheless. The poles were recently freshened up and treated to extend their longevity as a port monument. Newman likes to tell the story of the volunteers who braved a wind storm and the poles heights to reattach the eagle’s wings at the project’s completion, cringing as she thinks of dangling that high in the air.

As marketing manager for the seven-mile long Port of Kalama, Newman has been pointing out the totem pole and telling its story to a number of prospective port tenants since January.

According to Newman, most of the uptick in interest at the port has come on the heels of the 20-year Columbia River dredging project, which finished in December at a cost of some $200 million. The port now has four deep-draft marine terminals that can dock 43-foot draft ships, explained Newman, adding that the deepening has increased vessel capacity by about 10 percent.

Industial area at Port of KalamaAlready expanding on the heels of the dredging is Kalama Export Company, which is investing $36 million in its grain export operation at the port. Kalama Export Company, a partnership with Archer Daniels Midland Company, Gavilon Grain and Agrex, declined an interview request. But a recent press release states that the expansion will add 25 percent to the company’s throughput. Most of the grains – corn, soybeans, wheat and milo – are destined for Asian markets.

Kalama Export Company’s expansion, and the expansion of several other grain companies along the river, is good news for the port of Kalama and for Washington’s economy, according to Eric Johnson, executive director of the Washington Public Ports Association.

“The United States has a lot bulk agricultural commodities and bulk minerals, and the world’s hungry for it,” Johnson said.

Also at the Port of Kalama, Cenex Harvest States operates a grain elevator that’s port-owned. Between the two companies, more than 11 million tons of grain is exported annually.

While Kalama Export Company owns the site it operates from, the port typically leases building and land space, and hopes to develop a 70-acre parcel adjacent to Kalama Export that also has wharf permitting and access to railroad. Bare land leases for $10,000 an acre.

In addition, the port has new office and warehouse space. Stopping at a brand new, three-year-old building in an industrial park with views of The Columbia River and access to a walking trail, Newman explained that the 33,000 square-foot warehouse space could be leased as-is or divided into three spaces. Fronting the building is 2,000 feet of office space with tile floors and an executive office with a river view. The warehouses are heated and insulated; warehouse space leases for 35 cents per square foot; office space leases for $1 per square foot.

“Our mission is to create jobs, capital investment and create recreational opportunities,” Newman said.

A barge moving through the channelTo that end, the port is buzzing. Some 900 people are employed at the Port of Kalama. And with an economic uptick, the river dredging project complete and the absence of property tax at the port – the port is able to collect property tax, but chooses not to in an effort to attract industry and tenants. Knowing this, Newman feels certain that more businesses will open shop soon.

While the port’s export companies vary, shipping grain, steel, lumber, chemicals and more, there’s also a sprinkling of retail establishments and Mountain Homes, a log home manufacturer.

On the recreation front, the port is finishing a playground project at five-acre Marine Park, with the addition of more play equipment to go along with volleyball pits, horseshoe pits and covered pavilions. A 1.8 mile walking trail links the area together and fishermen can be seen along the shoreline or in boats.

The port will also have a new administration building soon. Its recent building design request for proposal netted 25 responses. Newman said construction should begin next year.

On the retail end of things there’s Cabin Fever, a cabin décor store where Tucker, a Labrador, greets visitors with a tail wag. Donna Bergeron, who’s owned and operated Cabin Fever for seven years, said business is still in flux after the economic downturn.

Inside Cabin Fever you’ll find a number of rustic items, including deer antler lights and tables (which fetch between $1,000 and $3,000), agate lampshades and salvaged pier tables. Bergeron said she’s hopeful that sales numbers, which are still fluctuating, will even out soon.

Even with unsteady retail numbers, Bergeron said her location at the port and just off of Interstate Five, spurs her business. Most of her customers hail from Seattle, she said. And all enjoy the tail wags of Tucker, a cup of coffee (she sells it at the register, but usually offers it to shoppers for free) and the artist-crafted works in her store.

“Every last piece is a work of art,” Bergeron added.