They are supposed to have invisible, unbreakable connections to the halls of government, where highly-placed co-conspirators pull the levers of power for them. And at solemn midnight meetings they march in hooded processions to honor Mother Gaia, to sing Kumbaya, and to hatch ever-more sophisticated conspiracies to stop all economic progress in Coos Bay . . . conspiracies so vast, even Joe McCarthy might have been short of words.
This, more or less, is the popular image of those whom Jerry Baron, the longest-serving (and probably the most rabid) editor of The World used to call the “antidevelopment quarter”. But his fulminations resonated with many of his readers, who eagerly bought the conspiracy theory – and still do. Now, I don’t mean to say conspiracies don’t exist. What I am saying is that the bigger and the more ominous they become, the less likely they are to be real. Consider the heroic assumptions that every big conspiracy theory requires: strict secrecy, oodles of money, a vast, invisible network of power, and a totalitarian agenda, possibly going back centuries. Very bloody unlikely, especially in combination. But this is how, to this day, many people in Coos Bay explain our area’s forty-year record of economic and social decline. Dozens of sensational proposals for new industries, one after another, turned out to be no more than flashes in the pan! Every one fizzled out! None ever happened! How can this be? It must be a conspiracy! It’s the almighty “antidevelopment quarter” that’s behind it all! It must be the NIMBYs! It’s the green watermelons! It’s the Audubon Society or the Sierra Club! Or, as a letter writer in The World of August 4 put it, it’s all because of the “naysayers”, the locals who pose as the champions of the “little people”, and the “protectors of our way of life,” but are really communists at heart. These people, she wrote, will “. . . block any large company attempting to establish itself anywhere near Coos Bay/North Bend. I invite any of you who have lived here for any length of time to think back over the history of the area and myriad of business to have run into the teeth of this opposition and finally given up and gone elsewhere.”
Since a myriad is a large number, traditionally 10,000, I sense that the author of this jeremiad of myriads may be exaggerating a weensy bit. She is one Lois Buerer, from Bandon. If nothing else, she demonstrates that indignation, ignorance and illiteracy make a heady broth whose wildly rising foam may end up on the editorial page. But the underlying reasons for Lois’s indignation are, first, her personal support for the Jordan Cove LNG proposal and second, her dread that the same dismal fate may befall that scheme that has killed all the other industrial plans before it, meaning that the vast “antidevelopment” conspiracy will strike again.
Does distance make the heart grow fonder?
I might point out first that Lois confirms an observable fact of human nature, which is that those who favor an obnoxious industrial scheme for Coos Bay are more likely to live at some distance from it than are its opponents. In fact, we may well find that opposition decreases as mileage increases. Jon Barton lives in Hauser, probably far enough away from Jordan Cove to escape the holocaust set off by the 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that are both overdue. John Stephens, the Port President who in 1990 was going to site a Japanese pulp mill on the North Spit (“We are not here to make friends,” he told a large gathering of indignant opponents) lived in Bandon. As does Lois Buerer today. As does David Koch, the Coos Bay port manager who got his job as a political payoff. It’s a curious trend of advocacy without personal risk that makes it understandable why many police departments and school districts and city councils require their employees to live within the city they are pledged to care for, so they will have a stake in it. In contrast, the core of the LNG opposition consists mainly of local people who care about what happens in their back yards, people who live in the blast zone, like Jody McCaffree and many others who don’t speak out as much as she does. This, incidentally, is why today’s derogatory acronym NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard – should be a badge of honor. Since when is caring about what happens in your back yard a bad thing? And that question especially applies to the Coos Bay area, which is rich in peace and quiet, in scenic beauty and fresh air and other assets that make it a good place to live, even though according to the industrial promoters, all such things are no more than coins we must drop in the offering box for their idea of progress.
All that now being said, Lois Buerer’s sweeping opinions deserve to be skinned, eviscerated and disemboweled; not a trace must be left, for they are utterly false. That’s because during twenty years of research into the forty-year history of Coos Bay’s failure to thrive, I have found nothing to support the notion that our economy has been stifled by our NIMBY’s or any similar deprecating designations. All the evidence points the other way, as documented by 2,232 footnotes and a similar number of documents used in my book, “The JOB Messiahs”, a title which accurately describes the mentally ossified ecodevo prophets whose “economic development” mania has done our area so much harm. They are the activists at the Port, the Chamber, SCDC, B.S. Oregon, Oregon Business, etcetera, some twenty ecodevo agencies who have never achieved anything except prolong their own useless existence, and are quite desperate by now for results, any kind of results. If I could take any of those ecodevo dignitaries aside for a tête à tête – a very unlikely prospect – and ask them why they favor an insane proposal like Jordan Cove, their final answer is bound to be: “If not Jordan Cove, what else?”
But before I list the evidence, let us ponder the question that attorneys and political scientists like to ask about any political issue: cui bono? Which is Latin for: “who benefits?” In whose interest is it to preserve the fairy tale that it’s people like today’s LNG opponents who have turned Coos Bay into the only truly economic laggard in all of western Oregon? The answer is: there are two groups that benefit.
The first one consists of the big, professional environmentalist groups: the Sierra Club, Earth First, the Audubon Society, and many more. They may not have actively encouraged the development of that image of power, but they are not going to object getting some credit for “killing” some dreadful industrial project in a place like Coos Bay, even when the truth is quite different. After all, it may help their fundraising. People like giving money to winners.
The second but more important beneficiaries are our JOB Messiahs, who have even less interest in acknowledging the truth. That’s because they, not the LNG opponents, are the true communists, as ignorant and as inflexible as the economic planners of the former Soviet Union who posted signs at their labor camps: “With An Iron Fist, We Will Lead Humanity To Happiness.” Don’t they like free enterprise? Hell, no; that would imply unpredictability, which they abhor. What they do like is subsidies, corporate welfare, important-sounding jobs for themselves, generous expense accounts, and overseas trips for vague business reasons. Oh, and BIG THINGS. True central planners only love BIG THINGS, which is one reason why (as even Lois Buerer noted) a lot of smaller businesses have given up on Coos Bay through the years. Nevertheless, the naysayers and the NIMBY’s make awfully handy whipping boys for the JOB Messiahs, or fig leaves if you will, fig leaves that they can blame for their flops, all forty years of them. The JOB Messiahs NEED the naysayers and the NIMBYs. In a perverse way, they are their job security.
A litany of self-inflicted disasters
So, what really caused our successive economic planning wrecks?
The short answer is: the Central Planning mentality of our “economic leaders”, which made them blind to alternative developments that could have prospered by now; their obsession with BIG THINGS; their blindness to our area’s real assets; their utter ignorance of how markets work; and their hostility to free enterprise.
• The early prototype that set the pattern for all the ecodevo disasters that followed was the Crosline Ferry episode of 1975/77. The Port bought the old wooden vessel without engines purely on a whim, with a lot of vague talk about “developing” it as a tourist attraction by renting it to various businesses including a restaurant. But they had no contracts with potential lessees, and they had done no homework to see what would be required to bring the vessel into usable condition. In the end they just dumped it, losing $100,000.
• Between 1977 and 1982 the Port of Coos Bay, having recently been tasked with “developing” the area, was obsessed with cashing in on the fish market. So they financed a fish processing plant and a fish waste plant in Charleston, both of which were pushed through the local approval process by intimidating and bullying local critics. But then it turned out that both fish facilities were run by irresponsible profiteers without qualifications, who paid themselves big salaries with the money lent by the Port and the State, until they skipped town. The Port also had dreams of creating its own fish processing empire on the North Spit, but the voters turned them down for a $10 million bond issue to pay for that. So they decided to pursue the same plan “on a shoestring” by building a dock on the North Spit instead. Still known as the T-dock, it was supposed to attract fish processors who would build their own plants nearby, but none ever came. The North Spit fish processing plan never made any sense anyway, because the fishermen preferred to come into Charleston, where they could easily tie up at the waterside plants’ docks and unload their catch. Even worse, while the first pilings were being driven for the T-dock, the fish market was tanking but the Port forged ahead without giving it a thought. Altogether they wasted several million dollars of borrowed money on these irresponsible investments for which they did no homework. The NIMBYs and their allies had very little to do with any of it.
I should perhaps add that the disastrous turn of the fish market at that time was also due to government mismanagement, albeit at a higher level. First, the federal government had offered easy loans for building fishing boats, so many more people had gone fishing, and they had big payments to make. Meanwhile oil prices rose steeply, increasing the fishermen’s fuel costs, and inducing them to fish even more. The combination of an oversupply and a recession caused prices to fall. Alarmed by declining fish stocks, the federal government then instituted quotas and other fishing restrictions, which made things even worse for the fishermen. The end results were a lot of repossessed boats and financial troubles for the Port, which only avoided insolvency thanks to bailouts by the State of Oregon.
Marvin Judd, coal export promoter (The World Photo)
• Inspired by the same oil price boom of those days, promoters worked west coast ports with a plausible solution: export American coal to the far east, because power plants in places like Taiwan wanted to switch from oil to coal, a cheaper alternative. Coal export fever seized several northwest ports including Coos Bay. Locally there was concern about coal dust blowing into town 24 hours a day off the North Spit, but they were ignored. But requirements for environmental impact studies could not be ignored, since the project might affect federal lands on the North Spit; even so, they were waived under political pressure. At heated public meetings, excited people clamored for the coal terminal jobs while the JOB Messiahs urged action on the promoter’s scheme. So the Port promised the promoters financing in the form of $150 million in tax-exempt bonds. Finally, a couple of years after the promoters had first hit town and after they had sold stock in their venture, it was revealed that coal could not be shipped economically from Coos Bay because of the long train trip required. To some extent the same thing was true of other ports; both Portland and Kalama, on the Columbia, suffered substantial damages thanks to their own coal export promoters.
• The mid-‘eighties saw a lot more ecodevo activity by the Port, but none that produced any jobs. The North Spit saw the establishment of an Enterprise Zone, a Foreign Trade Zone and an Urban Renewal District, none of which have achieved anything except financial waste. There also was a lot of big talk about making Coos Bay the headquarters of a venture to mine the ocean floor, about building a superhighway to Roseburg, about building a shipyard, and many other things that never came to pass but kept the ecodevo fever high. A much-feted promoter came to town, allegedly to build a chromium smelter. This drew opposition from locals worried about smelter pollution, but the reasons for the plan’s failure were that the promoter didn’t know what he was talking about, and was mainly hoping to sell stock; the same situation as with the coal export promoter five years before – and with others. As long as the chromium smelter plan was alive, the Port told a lot of lies to placate the worried locals. The Port also dug a $1.5 million barge slip on the North Spit because it was convinced a big steel equipment fabricator would site a plant there, for assembling oil field “modules” to be shipped to the Alaskan North Slope. The gullible city councils of North Bend and Coos Bay even advanced the money for the slip. But one again, the Port had no contract with the fabricator, and the barge slip has sat unused for almost thirty years.
• Also in the mid-eighties, the voters were sweet-talked into giving away their right to vote for (and recall) the Port Commissioners, to let the governor appoint them instead. This was done by means of phony promises of more ecodevo money from the State of Oregon. I have no doubt that it was really done to put the irresponsible Port officials with their unpopular but always failing plans out of the reach of the voters. Since then the governor has appointed the port commissioners, who have become about as responsive to the public as a rock can be to a goat – and considering their record, that’s saying something.
Pulp Mill meeting April 4, 1990
• The years 1990/91 saw a lot of excitement about a Japanese-owned pulp mill to be built on the North Spit. The Port spent a couple of million dollars for water studies for this proposed mill, which would use several million gallons a day, and decided that damming Tenmile Lake would be the best way to provide all that water. As with other potential polluters, this proposal raised the ire of the locals because of its potential for blowing massive amounts of rotten egg odors into town. But once again the Port and the politicians told terrible lies, promising no pollution of either water or air, which even the company itself didn’t support. This time, however, the local opposition was led by retired people with political savvy, and they succeeded in passing a ballot initiative that outlawed pulp mills on Port-owned land.
On its face the pulp mill story may be the biggest arrow in the quiver of those who feel entitled to blame the “naysayers” and NIMBYs for our ecodevo failures. But it’s hard to understand how, when a ballot measure passes by about 3 to 2, the pulp mill’s failure can be blamed on a small, noisy minority. More plausibly it was a majority decision. Aside from that, the real story is far more complicated: Coos Bay was used for corporate blackmail. The company, Daishowa Paper, was never serious. It had thrown out its bait to play off Coos Bay against Port Angeles, WA, where Daishowa wanted concessions to expand an existing mill but had run into opposition. This explains why Daishowa’s plan for Coos Bay never amounted to more than a few scribbles on the back of an envelope, and the company avoided spending any of its own money for preparations. One year after its first Coos Bay announcement, Daishowa got what it wanted in Port Angeles. At that same time it announced the abandonment of its Coos Bay plan, due to the difficulty “of securing an adequate source of water”. Coos Bay has been played this way several times since. And, maintaining another ecodevo tradition, the Port never seems to have studied the pulp market, just like they never studied the fish market or the coal market or oil prices or railroad economics. When the Daishowa plan was first announced, pulp prices were already slipping due to overcapacity. Since then foreign competition has led to the closures of most domestic pulp and paper mills.
• 1997/98 saw the Nucor Steel episode, from the usual initial boosters’ gushy excitement to fizzing out like a stale beer. Just like Daishowa and the other heavy industries, Nucor wanted to site on the North Spit, but – just like them too – it let the locals do the spending for preparations. Those were substantial because the company had neither land, nor natural gas, nor enough local power for its production process. With so many essentials lacking, you wonder if they had done any homework, a question which leads to the next one: whether they were ever serious. But Nucor’s advocates organized big public rallies to promote the plan, at which the company was elevated to divine status. In addition a lot of government money and time was spent planning a new 500 kV power line from the interior to Coos Bay, just for Nucor. That line was never built, and once again you wonder if Nucor was at all serious because the federal government owns about half of the land in Oregon, which made it inevitable for the new power line to cross it; and that being so, expensive and lengthy environmental studies would have to be done, as is always the case when federal land is affected. But the company’s reaction was a mix of annoyance and surprise. In any case, those federal requirements were hardly the fault of the local NIMBY’s.
Nucor was a very well-run company that liked to locate in smaller towns because those provided the best “incentives” (= subsidies). So the Oregon legislature was induced to pass a subsidies bill for Coos Bay which, between a 15-year local property tax exemption (which came on top of the 5-year enterprise zone exemption) plus a huge income tax break, would give Nucor somewhere between $57 million and $137 million in subsidies. Divided among 225 projected jobs, that came to between $200,000 and $600,000 per Nucor job. It was the biggest corporate welfare bill passed in the state’s history, and the legislature sweetened it even more by passing a bill promising $20 million to build a natural gas line to Coos Bay, especially for Nucor. But as soon as the subsidies were in the bag Nucor, much to the disgust of the craven politicians, approached the legislature of the State of Washington, asking if they couldn’t do better than Oregon. Washington declined, and the Nucor issue sort of drifted until in the spring of 1998 they seemed to be losing interest; the company was no longer returning telephone calls. Later that year it also became obvious that they were not terribly interested in acquiring land for their mill. And by mid-1999 BPA, which had been conducting the environmental power line studies, refused to go any further because Nucor had not supplied any of the information they needed. Finally, in July 1999 Nucor announced they were no longer interested. Since then the company has expanded substantially, not by building new plants but through a very active acquisitions policy.
Did Nucor vanish from the Coos Bay stage because it was chased off by the local NIMBYs? Hardly. What is clear is that the company was fishing for subsidies and used Coos Bay as bait, to obtain bigger chunks of corporate welfare elsewhere. And if not for the Coos Bay ecodevo crowd’s stubborn, mindless obsession with the area’s destiny as an industrial center, Nucor might have never come. So all that was achieved was the enabling of the kind of brazen blackmail scheme that big corporations have become very good at.
• There is no need to dwell on the 2005 arrival and demise of the Jordan Cove LNG import proposal, except that it was again made unviable by changing market conditions. The world is always more dynamic than ecodevo officials can imagine, and it’s quite possible that the marketplace will dash their dreams for an export terminal as well. Jordan Cove certainly seems to consider it a possibility. But around the time the LNG import terminal was losing its luster, in 2007, we suddenly got all the hoopla about the Maersk container import terminal. Once again, that was a corporate ploy to use Coos Bay’s gullibility. As is standard practice, the company threw out its bait in three places: a site in Baja California, where labor would be much cheaper; a recently-built new container port in British Columbia, which was non-union; and finally Coos Bay. Personally, I never believed Coos Bay could qualify because the purpose of bringing containers here would not be to leave them but forward them, by train, to places east of the Rockies.
That’s where the major distribution centers are located. And there was no way the existing railroad from Coos Bay to Eugene was up to that job, since it was never built for that kind of traffic, and in poor shape besides. It could be rebuilt, yes, but at a cost of hundreds of millions, and any smart corporation would avoid that expense if a good alternative was available. One such alternative was the Prince Rupert site in B.C. which had outstanding railroad connections to Chicago. Like the other companies before it, Maersk did not spend very much money or effort exploring Coos Bay. Maersk officials were also very silent during an August 2007 party on the Coos Bay boardwalk during which the politicians performed a circular congratulation ritual, to celebrate the governor’s signing of a bill to allocate $60 million to dredge Coos Bay for Maersk. A mere five months later the company announced thousands of layoffs due to the slump in container shipping. There was no more talk about building any container ports; instead Maersk leased an existing, underused facility in Vancouver, B.C.
That happened in January 2008. But a couple of years later you could still read opinions in The World like the one below:
“The container business will not stay down forever folks. This is why we need the railway, a deepened channel and along the way, a better US 101 (4-lane). . . . Our port is a great resource potentially . . . ”
As the skinny man said: “Fat chance.” Even if container shipping reaches its former levels, the enlargement of the Panama Canal, to be finished a year from now, is likely to move container loads coming from Asia from the west coast to places like Houston or Charleston or Charlotte. That’s because, railroad transportation being more expensive than water, shippers will take the opportunity to shorten the rail part of the trip by lengthening the move by sea.
Anybody else want to claim that it’s all the fault of the darn NIMBYs and environmentalists and their evil conspiracies?