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Newport's rendezvous with NOAA

Its stunning raid of Seattle-based NOAA ships culminates a story going back 40 years, and rewards some smart economic planning
Jane Lubchenco, NOAA's new head and new heroine of Newport

Jane Lubchenco, NOAA's new head and new heroine of Newport NOAA

Newport's stunning capture of the Seattle-based Pacific Marine Operations Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), with its 10 research vessels, has its roots over 40 years ago, when Oregon Gov. Mark O. Hatfield presided over the creation of a marine science research laboratory at the small Oregon port, a facility that prospered as Hatfield moved to the U.S. Senate and became a huge player in federal appropriations.

As Hatfield climbed the ladder, eventually chairing Senate Appropriations, the Oregon State University laboratory at Newport grew and attracted some of the leading marine scientists in the nation. Among them was Jane Lubchenco, the new head of NOAA, and before her was John Byrne, who headed NOAA from 1981 to 1984.

Hatfield was dedicated to the marine sciences laboratory, which now bears his name. The senator even made his Oregon home at Newport for several years, overlooking a spectacular stretch of beach. Now 87 and in frail health, he lives near Portland.

No current Oregon senator or congressman has the clout Hatfield wielded, but neither does any Washingtonian have the clout Sen. Warren Magnuson enjoyed on Appropriations. Accordingly, politics may have played less of a role than in "the good old days of Scoop and Maggie," despite the key positions held by Lubchenco and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, former Washington governor, whose agency oversees NOAA.

It just could be that Newport made the best case. If you don't know Newport, it is too easily slipped into the "coastal resort" niche.

But Newport is not your typical small Oregon coastal town. The city of 10,240 is the county seat of Lincoln County and hosts a fishing fleet and the remnants of a timber industry. Local leaders have long been committed to keeping a more diverse economy rather than relying just on tourism. The OSU Marine Science Center is a major player, with several other payrolls spinning off the laboratory. The city has a stable downtown and a broader employment base than other Oregon coastal cities. Its picturesque waterfront is also a working port, but perhaps best known for its Oregon Coast Aquarium and the rustic Mo's chowder house, still remembered by locals for a 1968 campaign stop by Robert Kennedy.

The Port of Newport has actively in invested in the waterfront and will issue $24.76 million in revenue bonds to cover half the cost of the new facility. The state agreed to add $19.5 million in bonding capacity for the project. Oregon could focus on helping Newport — the state's only entry in the NOAA sweepstakes — while Washington had entries from three cities: Seattle, Port Angeles, and Bellingham. Newport benefits from close proximity to Oregon State University, an hour's drive away in Corvallis, where the marine sciences are considered to be on par with NOAA's current neighbors at the University of Washington. Neither Port Angeles nor Bellingham has a similar scientific lure.

NOAA's decision will be particularly welcome in Oregon, which has steadily ranked second, behind Michigan, in unemployment. Small towns in rural and coastal Oregon are particularly hard hit, and the addition of some 175 well-paid employees plus spin-off jobs in services and retail, will be an economic boost to the area when fully operational in 2011. Construction is expected to begin soon, employing up to 100 workers, on facilities to host four NOAA vessels, with berths for two visiting vessels, plus shoreside labs and offices.

Forty years ago, when then-Governor Hatfield coined the term "Twenty Miserable Miles" to describe Lincoln County's tacky beach towns, Newport heard the message and committed to a path that didn't rely only on tourism. Some of the snazzy condominiums and tourist lures went elsewhere, but the city tried to emphasize quality projects, such as its nationally known aquarium. As a result, Newport is less dependent on tourists and retirees than other cities of its size and location. NOAA fits right into that picture and rewards vision that looked beyond the quick buck.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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