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Riverfront land presents a monumental opportunity

City closes in on veneer plant property purchase, discussing paper mill site


by: JOHN BREWINGTON, FOR THE SPOTLIGHT - St. Helens officials are moving closer toward a purchase of the 17-acre waterfront site of the former Boise Cascade veneer plant. St. Helens officials are moving ever closer to a decades-old dream of purchasing riverfront property in the Old Town area of St. Helens.

The purchase of the former veneer plant site on the Columbia River at the end of South 1st Street may be soon completed. Additional land that includes the paper mill is also being discussed. Conclusion of that possible acquisition is expected to take longer, but could potentially be finished before the end of 2014, officials have said.

Boise Cascade owns the veneer plant site, which is approximately 17 acres. The addition of the Boise Inc.-owned paper mill property would bring the total acquisition to more than 400 acres.

Exactly how much the city would pay for the properties is not known at this point.

The city has already done a lot of work on a waterfront plan in anticipation of acquiring the veneer plant site.

“It’s a monumental opportunity that probably won’t happen again,” said John Walsh, St. Helens city administrator. “It’s catalytic for downtown development, transportation linkage trails and parks.”

Walsh put together an executive session for the St. Helens City Council to examine all aspects of the acquisitions, focusing mostly on the Boise Inc. site.

Members of the Governor’s Regional Solutions Team, including the Oregon Department of Transportation, Department of Environmental Quality and Business Oregon, attended that meeting with city staff. The Department of State Lands was also invited, but unable to attend.

Walsh said the city is trying to be pragmatic about the acquisitions, considering the risks and weighing them against potential rewards.

“It’s a game-changer for downtown revitalization,” he said.

Mayor Randy Peterson echoed Walsh’s assessment of what the veneer plant purchase could mean for the city.

“This is the kind of opportunity that probably will never come along again. The situation could change the face of the city,” Peterson said.

Peterson said the meeting was productive in steering the city in the right direction on the acquisitions, but said more specifics were need.

Both properties are currently zoned for heavy industrial use but could be converted to a mix of commercial and residential if the city acquired them. City officials expect to have some assistance in evaluating the possible changes.

Walsh added, “The council is being very positive and supportive in fully exploring the project.”

Council President Doug Morten was cautiously optimistic about the potential for the city.

“It’s encouraging to see this [moving forward], and any way you look at it there is economic potential. The most important thing, I feel, if the city enters into any property agreement, is that the city will allow citizens to have a say on what to do with the property,” Morten said.

Morten said committees need to be formed to look into creating a sustainable business center and for other uses of the property.

“Whatever we do, we need to move cautiously and make very careful decisions,” he concluded.