CL boat deal could steer port from rough waters

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

March 18, 2006

Cascade Locks Port Commission President Kathy Woosley explained to employees of the Sternwheeler Columbia Gorge on Wednesday that the boat had headed into rough financial waters.

She said turning management of the paddlewheel replica over to American Waterways, owners of the Portland Spirit Line, would lead to smooth sailing.

To hang on to a boat that had incurred a budget shortfall of $250,000 in 2005 did not make good business sense, said Woosley.

“Leasing the boat is the best option for our people to have an opportunity to still work,” she said.

Chuck Daughtry, port director, said in spite of spending $150,000-$170,000 per year on advertising — well above the trade average — the boat failed to draw enough riders to generate a profit.

He said leasing the sternwheeler to a company that would dock it in Cascade Locks from May through October was preferable to the other three options. These choices included dry-docking the $3.5 million vessel, selling it outright or drastically reducing the number of employees and the wages they earned.

Currently, Daughtry said payroll costs for six full-time staffers and about 60 seasonal workers was $750,000 per year — half of the total operating costs. He said the ship’s average annual revenue loss over the last 13 years was $100,000, although the monetary situation worsened last year.

He believes that American Waterways has access to other marketing venues that could actually bring more tourism into Cascade Locks.

“This is really the next step. We’ve built a market and now we’ve found a financial management team with expertise in this area that can take it to the next level,” he said.

Not all of the 35-member audience at the special meeting of employees, family members and concerned citizens agreed with port officials. They were unconvinced that American Waterways would hire them if the deal went through by April 1 as expected.

“It seems like bad timing. We could sell out every one of our cruises when the casino comes in. We’ve waited so long and it’s the wrong time to sell now that there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” said employee Peter Holmstrom.

Although the majority of personnel sided with Holmstrom, Capt. Tom Cramblett did not.

He expressed confidence about getting a job with the new company. He said it was important that the port find any way possible to help displaced employees. But that it was time for local residents to accept that change was necessary to keep the sternwheeler in operation.

“The boat wasn’t about me having a job. The boat wasn’t about the crew having a job. The boat was about the community,” said Cramblett.

Daughtry said the port expects a get a final offer from American Waterways next week. He said the negotiations have centered on making sure the boat remained a central part of community activities, such as Sternwheeler Days in June. While the port would turn management of the visitor center over to American Waterways, it would retain ownership of the boat and facility — and control of Port Marine Park, the Pavilion meeting room and Thunder Island.

Daughtry said if the port does not have to subsidize the sternwheeler each year, it can pursue other economic ventures that would be more profitable for city residents.

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