The three incumbent Crescent City Harbor commissioners demonstrated a shared sense of direction and recent accomplishment during the Triplicate’s forum for candidates this week, while the lone challenger to attend promised a fresh perspective for the board.
After serving as commissioners through the crippling 2011 tsunami, the rebuilding of the harbor, and the planning of lofty future projects, the incumbents, Scott Feller, James Ramsey and Wes White, sounded in sync — reflective of the unified “team” oft-cited by the current board.
Challenger Ken Cowan cited 35 years of building experience, two successful waterfront concession businesses in St. Louis and a lifetime around marinas as proof that he’s ready for the job. Cowan said his stint as a harbor maintenance person and as an assistant project manager on the tsunami relief crew opened his eyes to improvements that could be made.
As highlighted in the opening statement of incumbent Wes White, within a couple years the harbor district will be responsible for paying about $260,000 annually in debt service — up from $71,000 currently paid annually.
More tourism, recreation
With the large, looming payments in mind, and an annual deficit near half a million dollars since 2006, Triplicate editor and forum moderator Richard Wiens asked the candidates: “When it comes to raising more revenue to improve the harbor, what has more potential for growth: the seafood industry or nonindustrial harbor uses?”
Incumbents were quick to highlight the state-of-the-art harbor facility coming down the pipeline, which in theory should attract more businesses.
“We’re going to build it and they will come,” Feller said in his introduction.
All four candidates agreed that although the harbor needs to maintain the services for the commercial fishing fleet and the one remaining fish processor, the most potential for growth lies in boosting recreation and tourism.
Ramsey said his recognition of the importance of tourism dollars is what first attracted him to run for a commission seat.
When he was elected in 2008, he worked to resolve a lease issue with an art gallery in the harbor, and he emphasized the importance of keeping tourism-related tenants.
Feller pointed to the harbor’s plans for a promenade with informational kiosks that will be connected through pathways to the city’s section of the California Coastal Trail as a tourist attraction. He also mentioned discussion about a possible weather station at Whaler Island and more seal docks to attract tourists.
“The tourism industry is extremely important. They bring their money ... and spend it and leave. We have to give them something to do,” Feller said.
Cowan said the harbor needs to attract more pleasure boats and recreation with things like a full-service boat yard and possibly an aquatic center.
Cowan owned and operated a boat rental business in St. Louis and proposed that the harbor district could solicit other businesses with aquatic centers or boat yards on the West Coast to open a shop in Crescent City.
“If you want to have this great marina, which we’re going to have, you got to have the facilities to go with it,” Cowan said.
The highly prized would-be tourists are already driving through Crescent City, Feller and White said. The trick is just pulling them off the highway.
“Somehow we’ve got to get people off the 101,” White said. “We don’t need a marketing campaign to attract people to come to Crescent City; they are already coming through Crescent City. We’ve got to get them to stop and pull into the harbor.”
White floated the idea of a Brother Jonathan museum or a tsunami museum, saying that public interest in tsunamis could be an attraction; a way to turn a negative into a positive. He pointed to Forks, Wash., capitalizing on how the “Twilight” movie series is based there as an example.
Ramsey underlined his belief that more diligent upkeep of harbor facilities will make for better experiences for tourists. For example, replacement of stainless steel fixtures in bathrooms and more frequent repainting.
“The cost is nominal to make it a conducive thing to stay,” he said.
Wiens asked why our harbor didn’t have the commercial liveliness of the Port of Brookings-Harbor. Both Feller and White responded:
“We don’t have a state lottery that funded what they did,” Feller said. “They’re $12 million in debt, and we’re building a $50 million harbor and only spending $5.4 million.”
White also said that the growth in Brookings-Harbor was too much, too fast and the port acquired a significant amount of debt. “I don’t want to see us go down that path,” he said.
The state and the feds
The vast majority of the harbor’s current reconstruction project is being funded with federal and state dollars.
With the importance of those relationships in mind, Wiens asked the candidates: “Is the harbor doing enough to make sure it works well with the state and federal governments and maximizes the assistance it can get from them?”
Feller, an active Republican (and representative for former state Sen. Doug LaMalfa) and Ramsey, an active Democrat, were well equipped for the question.
Feller highlighted how the different political leanings of Ramsey and himself complement each other.
“We leave politics out of our decisions at the harbor; we do not leave our political influences out,” Feller said, adding that Ramsey will entertain Democratic representatives when they are in town while Feller does the same for Republican officials.
Feller said that if Assemblyman Jim Nielsen wins LaMalfa’s seat, that Feller would continue to be a district representative part-time. He also sits on the county’s Republican Central Committee.
Ramsey said he has been “very diligently working” on the U.S. congressional campaign for Jared Huffman, the favorite in the race to represent Del Norte County. He also remarked on working closely with Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro. Ramsey sits on the county’s Democratic Central Committee.
Feller and Ramsey both cited the importance of retaining experienced staff like CEO/Harbormaster Richard Young and harbor planner Ernie Perry, who they said have performed exceptionally to receive grants from state and federal agencies.
“The political influence that the incumbents have right now just works really well,” Feller said.
White said he was new to the political scene, but he is making connections and appreciates the relationships that Feller and Ramsey each have.
Cowan acknowledged he does not have any political connections at this time.
Wiens asked if Feller’s views as a presumably fiscally conservative Republican with a desire for less government might conflict with the harbor’s need to get as much help as possible from the state and the feds.
“No, we are a special district; we are part of government and when we have disasters that are outside of our reach, our financial ability to build, and it’s the economic engine of the community, (then) it’s part of the infrastructure that’s incumbent on government to keep intact,” Feller said.
Safe as we can be?
The moderator asked the candidates a question with Crescent City’s tsunami-prone status in mind:
“Has enough been done to keep not only property, but also the people who live and work in the harbor as safe as possible?”
All of the incumbents highlighted the current rebuilding of the harbor’s inner boat basin, which has been designed to withstand the worst tsunami predicted to occur every 50 years, as proof that the harbor commission has done everything possible and practical to keep the harbor safe.
The new pilings will be more than twice the diameter of the old pilings and will be drilled more than 30 feet into the bedrock — more than twice the depth of the current pilings, White said.
“The original design criteria started out with a 100-year event and that would’ve meant a wall around the harbor and that’s not practical,” Feller said.
Cowan argued that the notification process is not sufficient and that there was plenty of time to get all of the boats out of the harbor in the March 2011 tsunami.
“You’re always going to have a few people that want to stay with their boats,” White said. “I’m aware that Mr. Young and Mr. (president Ron) Phillips, if not more of the commissioners, were down there on the day of the tsunami, trying to get ahold of boat owners and others to let them know what was going on.”
Two other challengers, David Alvarez and Dylan Clawson are also running for the three open positions on the harbor commission, but did not attend the forum. The three seats will go to the top three vote-getters.
Ken Cowan has lived in Del Norte for 10 years, is a certified general contractor, volunteered with the Noll Classic and school activities, and has taken college classes at Long Beach City College, Orange Coast College and online classes for career training for Ports and Marinas at the University Of Alaska.
Ramsey has lived in Del Norte for 17 years, is a retired educator, volunteers for 14 local organizations, and has a bachelor of arts from Sonoma State University.
Feller has lived in Del Norte for 23 years, is a political consultant, a board member of Rural Human Services, member of the Pelican Bay State Prison Citizens Advisory Committee and holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering from the Humboldt State University.
White has lived in Del Norte for five years, is the CEO of Hambro Group and holds a master’s degree in business management from the University of New Mexico.