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Port Slammed For Pulling Out Of Possible Insitu Deal

Port, SDS upset

The owners of two major local businesses -- SDS Lumber Co. and Dickey Farms -- are upset with the Port of Klickitat over what they see as a "unilateral withdrawal" of Port property from a collaborative land deal.

The land was part of a package to accommodate a possible business campus for Insitu, a Bingen-based company that designs and manufactures drone surveillance aircraft.

Insitu, a growing company with more than 800 employees -- most of whom are scattered at various locations around the mid-Columbia River Gorge -- is currently in the process of seeking a centralized campus.

SDS, Dickey's, and the Port of Klickitat had offered to pool their adjacent properties in the Bingen Point/Marina Park area to provide a large commercial/industrial parcel to Insitu, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Boeing.

However, in an Aug. 24 meeting of the Port of Klickitat Board of Commissioners, the Port voted to withdraw an earlier offer to sell between three to five acres to SDS that would then be packaged for Insitu. The reason given was "lack of progress and interest" on the part of Insitu.

In a Sept. 9 letter signed by SDS President Jason Spadaro and Dickey's owner Stan Dickey, the two business leaders slammed the Port of Klickitat for its action.

"Your stated reasons for withdrawing these lands from the joint proposal to Insitu include `additional opportunity to support economic development in the area,' a lack of `progress' on any `campus announcement' by Insitu, and the lack of a reply to a one-sentence e-mail you sent on Aug. 11," read an excerpt of the letter, which was addressed to Port of Klickitat Executive Director Marc Thornsbury. "Given the recently elevated prospects for a decision and the high degree of importance to Bingen, White Salmon, Klickitat County, and the state of Washington in retaining Insitu, we are amazed that the Port would want to change any aspect of a competitive proposal to Insitu it is involved with at the current time ... We are not aware of any `new opportunities' for economic development in the area, but we cannot believe any new business opportunity could be more compelling than retaining and supporting the growth and expansion needs of an existing business that is the county's largest employer and has become woven into our community over the past two decades ... We ask for the Port of Klickitat to explain to the public the due diligence process it has gone through on this new opportunity to determine it to be of greater importance than keeping the property in question available for our joint proposal to Insitu."

Last week, Insitu representatives confirmed that the process of finding a viable site for a possible business campus in the mid-Columbia River Gorge area had entered a new phase, although no decisions had been reached.

"We do have some Boeing reps in the area visiting a few of the sites that were proposed so they can get a feel for the area and organize their thoughts on how we should proceed on new facilities," explained Insitu's Jill Vacek. "We have no approvals to go forward on any new buildings, and the criteria for down-select has not been established."

Insitu recently signed a $43.7 million contract with the Department of the Navy, a deal that is expected to provide ongoing funding for more than a decade.

The "other opportunities" being considered by the Port appears to be centered around a proposal under discussion from Taylor Pickhardt Development, a Bend, Ore., company.

Jeff Pickhardt of Taylor Pickhardt Development attended the Port of Klickitat's Board of Commissioners Aug. 24 meeting, and explained that he is working on behalf of an unnamed potential tenant that is "interested in a 35,000 square foot facility that would have about 75 jobs."

Pickhardt added that the tenant would like to have occupancy by the end of 2011. No other details have yet been made public.

Thornsbury was directed by the Port Commissioners to "contact Pickhardt and discuss Bingen Point parcels for possible development."

The SDS/Dickey's letter also questioned whether Taylor Pickhardt has a campus proposal of its own for Insitu in the Hood River area.

Thornsbury said he did not believe that was the case.

"Not that I'm aware of," Thornsbury said.

Despite the apparent setback, Spadaro and Dickey pledged to continue with their efforts to offer a competitive proposal for land for a possible campus for Insitu. And they appeared to leave the door open for the Port of Klickitat to reconsider its decision.

"We believe it is unwise for the Port of Klickitat not to remain a part of this proposal in order to pursue other opportunities. We believe every effort should be made to invite Insitu to remain in Bingen," their letter concluded. "The SDS and Dickey Farms proposal was made more impressive by the fact that the Port of Klickitat was willing to work cooperatively by selling land and/or adjusting the Marina Park location to make the most attractive proposal possible to keep Insitu based in Bingen."

Thornsbury said the Port has not yet responded to the letter.

"It's on the agenda for tonight (Sept. 21), and the Port Commissioners will decide how to respond at that point," Thornsbury explained.

Asked whether the commissioners might reconsider, Thornsbury said that would be up to the commissioners.

"We'll see what transpires with it," he said.

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