At The Water's Edge: A Building For The Future

Dec 19, 2017

Like many rural towns, Port Orford, on Oregon’s south coast, has struggled with shifting economic tides. The Port of Port Orford has long been a key economic driver in the town, providing essential infrastructure to the local commercial fishing fleet. But the decrepit wooden building which houses much of that infrastructure won’t last much longer.

Now, many in town are pinning their hopes for Port Orford’s renewal on an ambitious replacement project, which would take the port in new directions.

Steve Courtier opens the padlock on a large, battered wooden door at the Port of Port Orford …

“So, this is the monstrosity we’re trying to get rid of,” he says.

Courtier is the port manager. Inside the cavernous wooden structure is a collection of huge plastic fish tanks, connected to pumps and coolers. Turns out Port Orford has the largest live fish fishery on the West Coast.

“All these fishermen go out here and they catch live fish; the ling cod, the blacks, the chinas – all of them are live. And there’s a huge market for that down in San Francisco,” he says.

These tanks hold the fish till they’re delivered, alive, typically to high-end Asian restaurants.

This operation is run by the Oakland-based Norcal Seafoods, which buys the fish. But Courtier says in its heyday, this old whitewashed building housed a bustling cannery.

"This was all chock-full of steamers, and women with these giant long tables,” he says. “And they were shucking crab. And they had these giant boilers and they’d boil the crab and can it all right here.”

Many decades later, the place is clearly on its last legs. The roof sags, insulation hangs from the ceiling. And Courtier says the port’s Job #1 is replacing the thing with a larger, more modern facility.

Norcal Seafoods would remain the anchor tenant. The Oregon State University Field Station just up the hill wants space for a wet-lab for marine research. The local kayak tour outfitter is interested. There’s talk of a fresh fish market, as well, something which Port Orford lacks. And other sea-related enterprises are eager to set up shop in the new facility, too …

Out on the dock at the port, James Weimar is tending a collection of large plastic tanks full of water and what appears to be reddish-brown leaves. Turns out he’s growing about a half ton of a sea vegetable called dulse.

“Dulse is a red algae,” he explains. It’s tasty. Would you like to try a piece?”

It’s crisp with a salty, slightly nutty taste …

“It’s more nutritious for you than kale,” he says. "I like the taste fresh out of the seawater. You can rinse it.”

Weimar works for Oregon Sea Farms, which cultures and collects what it calls “specialized sea crops,” dulse being the newest addition to the company’s product line. Oregon Sea Farms is another potential tenant for the new building at the port.

Now, remember Tom Calvanese, the biologist who heads OSU’s Port Orford field station? Well, he’s also president of the Port of Port Orford commission. And he says the port has embraced an economic development vision that goes beyond the commercial fishing fleet to include specialty seafoods, outdoor recreation, science, education and retail.

“We’ve evolved and expanded our economic portfolio to include the support of these other activities,” he says. "And we want to see our infrastructure reflect that.”

Hence, the need for a new facility that will accommodate it all. The rub, of course, is money. Estimates for the project run as high as $8 million.

That’s obviously not money the port can raise from the 1,100 residents of Port Orford. Grants from several non-profit foundations have paid for much of the preliminary analysis and design work, and port officials are in talks with a variety of state and federal agencies to raise the rest.

The port has a lot riding on this project. Calvanese calls the port “the heart of Port Orford.”

And, he says, “I believe that if we are able to execute the project correctly and successfully, we can actually improve the health of the heart of our town a great deal.”

It would be cheaper to just replace the ancient cannery building with a stripped-down facility to house the Norcal operation and call it good. But Calvanese believes the new, more expansive building is a vital part of Port Orford’s future. And he says his biology training tells him that trying to retreat into the perceived safety of the past doesn’t work.

“It’s the age-old meme; adapt or die. And that’s what you see in the living world around us. It’s been going on for eons.”

And, Calvanese says, that leaves him basically optimistic about the future of Port Orford.

“If you apply that principle to a community, to a place like this, I think we’re doing it. I think it’s happening."