Deal puts Sternwheeler jobs in limbo

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

March 4, 2006

The crew of the Sternwheeler “Columbia Gorge” could lose their jobs if a deal goes through to keep the boat financially afloat.

Cascade Locks Port Director Chuck Daughtry said negotiations are underway to turn operation of the paddlewheel replica over to American Waterways.

If all of the details are worked out by the end of month as expected, he said all six full-time employees can apply for hire with the Portland-based company.

During the tourist season, about 60 more workers are added to the crew and Daughtry said they, too, will need to re-apply for their positions.

“The boat has not turned an operating cash flow in 13 years but this is not only money-driven. It’s an opportunity to take the business to the next level. American Waterways runs the Portland Spirit line and has the resources to bring in more charters and groups,” said Daughtry.

He said the sternwheeler, owned by the port for 23 years, has lost $3.3 million over the last decade in spite of increased marketing efforts.

Even though about $1.2 million is brought in each year, he said operating expenses run about $200,000 more.

It just makes good business sense, said Daughtry, to place the vessel in the hands of a firm with greater resources.

“We don’t know if we’ve got a deal yet but, if this goes through, we’ll bring more visitors into town.

“And that will mean more people eating at our restaurants and staying at our motels,” he said. “We think it’s going to have a better economic impact on Cascade Locks than what we could do,” he said.

Daughtry said the port decided to explore the idea of turning the vessel over to a private enterprise in January. He had been approached by a California company wanting to purchase the craft but port officials did not want to sell it.

He declined to release details about the potential financial benefits of the pending deal.

However, Daughtry said the port would receive a share of the profits and not be burdened with maintenance, insurance, labor and operating costs.

The port would also retain ownership and the name of the sternwheeler would remain the same.

“It is more traditional for a port to serve as a landlord and provide the facilities necessary for entrepreneurs to flourish,” he said.

Daughtry said the sternwheeler will continue to run cruises out of Cascade Locks from May through October.

But off-season excursions could be curtailed or kept in the Portland area — at the discretion of American Waterways.

“We feel that it is time to leverage what we’ve already accomplished.

“We’ve created the market and shown that you can make revenue with the sternwheeler,” said Daughtry. “Now it’s time to turn the sternwheeler over to a company that can make Cascade Locks the base for a much larger presence in the Gorge.”

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