Bellingham's Gotcha on Oregon

The battle to snag an NOAA base heats up.

This past August, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced it would move its Pacific Marine Operations Center from Lake Union to Newport, Ore., in 2011. The Center is the base for 10 research vessels and employs about 175 people. Its lease in Seattle ends in 2011, and Newport was one of four cities to put in a bid. In a move of almost South Carolinian generosity, Newport offered to build NOAA a new pier using state lottery money and charge lower rent than its competitors. But last week, at the behest of Bellingham, another bidder for the Center, the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) stepped in and said "Not so fast." NOAA's plans to abandon Lake Union were a source of considerable consternation to elected officials. Maria Cantwell, whose Senate committee oversees NOAA, criticized the decision to move to Oregon, vowing that she would "push NOAA and the Department of Commerce to make sure that every option has been given full consideration before a move actually occurs." Cantwell and Patty Murray later sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke arguing that the move took NOAA's ships too far from existing laboratories in Seattle. But the Port of Bellingham took a more practical approach. The Port filed a complaint with the GAO arguing that the pier Newport planned to build was in a flood plain. Federal rules prohibit agencies from building in flood-prone areas unless there are no viable alternatives. NOAA denied that the proposed pier was in a flood plain. But the GAO found records of discussions between NOAA and Newport specifically discussing how Newport could build the pier high enough to escape flood damage. The GAO is now suggesting NOAA look at alternative locations, though that still may not help Seattle. Bellingham is hoping to reap the rewards of its gamesmanship—even though the city has probably pissed off the agency it's trying to woo.

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