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Originally published Tuesday, August 4, 2009 at 1:29 PM

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NOAA selects Newport, Ore., for research ship base

The central Oregon coastal town of Newport will be the new base for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's research ships on the West Coast, the federal agency announced Tuesday.

Associated Press Writer

SEATTLE —

The central Oregon coastal town of Newport will be the new base for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's research ships on the West Coast, the federal agency announced Tuesday.

The operations center has been on Seattle's Lake Union for nearly 50 years. In addition to Seattle and Newport, Bellingham and Port Angeles, Wash., had hoped to be chosen for the base.

After signing a 20-year lease, NOAA plans to base four research ships and up to two visiting ships at Newport starting in 2011. The base in Seattle currently has about 175 employees, including 110 officers and crew assigned to the ships.

Newport, long famed as a vacation and fishing spot on the central Oregon coast, has developed in recent years as a research center, with Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center and the nearby Oregon Coast Aquarium on the south side of Yaquina Bay. The new NOAA base would be in the same South Beach area, said Don Mann, general manager of the Port of Newport.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for Newport and the Port of Newport," Mann said.

Rear Adm. Jonathan W. Bailey, director of the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, stressed the selection depends on lease negotiations and said he could provide few details until the deal is completed. But he said the goal was to get the best value for the government.

In a news release, NOAA said it based its choice on Newport's ability to meet its infrastructure needs, closeness to maritime industry resources and NOAA labs, quality of life for employees, and the ability to meet the planned occupancy date of July 2011. The current lease in Seattle expires on June 30 of that year.

Mann said the new base, expected to cost between $35 million and $38 million, would be on a 10-acre site that would include all new warehouses, offices and labs, a 1,500-foot pier for the ships and a small boat dock.

The port will pay for the project through a combination of revenue bonds and money from the state of Oregon, with lease payments covering the bond interest, he said.

The lease itself "will not be a substantial windfall for the port," Mann said. But he said the economic spinoff to the region, including the 175 base employees, construction jobs and a stable port tenant for at least 20 years, will be substantial.

"So much credit for today's announcement goes to everyone at the Port of Newport who tirelessly pressed their case, as well as the state Legislature which authorized the bonding authority needed to help build the infrastructure to support the fleet," said U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

NOAA's Lake Union base in the middle of Seattle is on privately owned land. The agency also has laboratories and offices a few miles to the east on Lake Washington, and those facilities will remain.

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A 2006 fire destroyed piers and two buildings at the Lake Union site, forcing NOAA ships to moor elsewhere in the city until the piers could be rebuilt.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she was "extremely disappointed" by Tuesday's decision and intends to fight it.

"As chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NOAA, I'm not confident that all options have been thoroughly reviewed through this process," she said in a news release. "I intend to push NOAA and the Department of Commerce to make sure that every option has been given full consideration before a move actually occurs," she said.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels likewise criticized the decision.

"Ultimately this was a real estate decision between NOAA and a private Lake Union landowner who could not compete with massive public subsidies," Nickels said in a statement. "We will work with our congressional delegation to explore the next steps."

Lake Union has been rapidly changing from an industrial waterfront to a residential and urban playground, with high-priced condos, marinas and houseboats lining its shores, along with nearby office, medical and retail developments.

Scott Walker, president of Bellingham's port commission, said its proposal was competitive but also reflected the full cost of building a $32 million facility. He said in a news release that the port needed to ensure the local community was not subsidizing the federal government through a below-cost lease.

"We knew it would be an uphill battle," Walker said.

Bill James, interim executive director for the Port of Port Angeles, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.

Bailey said he could understand the disappointment of the Washington cities, but "this was a very clean and fair process. It was not done in a vacuum in any way, shape or form."

In addition to Seattle, NOAA has a marine operations center for Atlantic-based ships at Norfolk, Va.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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