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Coos Bay: Little City, Big Port

 Coos Bay
Officials want to build a container terminal along the Coos Bay channel

The southern coast of Oregon is one of the most isolated parts of the state. But leaders in one coastal town want to turn the seclusion to their advantage.

As part of our series on Northwest communities re-inventing themselves, correspondent Chris Lehman reports on Coos Bay, a little city with plans for a big port.

To really understand Coos Bay, you have to know its history.  And to understand the history, you have to know the geography.

Anne Donnelly:  "Essentially the story of all human culture here is told in the topography."

That's Anne Donnelly, director of the Coos Historical and Maritime Museum.

Anne Donnelly:  "There's a horseshoe of high ridges that surround us to the south, the east and the north.  And the only easy way in and out is either by water or by coming along the flat land which is right along the coast."

Despite those restrictions, it actually worked pretty well for moving logs.  Ships full of lumber left Coos Bay by the thousand until the timber industry collapsed in the 1990's. Unemployment topped 10 percent.  Schools closed as people left town for greener pastures.

Now, officials want to turn that around with a plan to create a new international shipping terminal.  Martin Callery is with the Port of Coos Bay.

Mike Callery:  "We want to see people be able to keep their kids in this community rather than their kids graduating from high school and having to go away because there arenít decent-paying jobs in this community."

The terminal would be an entry point for goods arriving from the Far East.  Containers filled with everything from televisions to toys would be unloaded onto trains and sent all over the United States.  The port would be small compared to places like Long Beach or Seattle. But Martin Callery says more imports from Asia could spell success for places like Coos Bay.

Mike Callery:  "We've got an under-utilized rail line.  We have an under-utilized harbor.  And we have an opportunity to put goods into the rail system at a point that's not congested such as LA, Long Beach, or Oakland."

But unlike those places, there's very little infrastructure in place to transport goods inland from Coos Bay.  Take the rail system.  It's certainly not congested these days.

Chris Lehman: "I'm standing on a set of railroad tracks just outside of Coos Bay.  For 91 years, this would have been a dangerous place to be. But the last train left Coos Bay in September, when the Central Oregon and Pacific Railroad closed their route to the coast. And without this rail connection, the container port could be little more than a pipedream. But Martin Callery says the shuttered rail line won't stand in the way."

Mike Callery:  "No one has ever denied the fact that the rail line between Eugene and Coos Bay would have to be rehabilitated."

Callery says they're in talks with a larger railroad company that's willing to sink millions of dollars into upgrading the line. But port officials have another project up their sleeves if the container port doesn't pan out.

A liquefied natural gas terminal is on the drawing board.  The fuel would be taken off of tanker ships and piped inland.

Both projects have their share of skeptics in the community.  Historian Anne Donnelly says whatever direction Coos Bay takes, she's hoping the region doesn't become too dependant on any one thing, like it did in the days of timber.

Anne Donnelly:  "Because we did clearly have a lot of eggs in one basket and when that basket broke, so to speak, we're paying the price for that now."

And speaking of price, container terminals don't come cheap.  The state legislature pitched in $60 million to fund improvements to the Coos Bay shipping channel.  But most of that money can't be spent unless Port officials can convince a shipping company to make Coos Bay the next major west coast port of entry.

Next, we travel to the Washington Coast, where a busted-up timber county is going green.


Port of Coos Bay

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