EDITORIAL: Time running out for Malheur County to ensure rail project

Grant Kitamura, president of the Malheur County Development Corp. (The Enterprise/file)

Malheur County’s prospect for major industrial development rests on a state decision coming in a month. No chance like this will come again anytime soon. That chance could be squandered unless the county mobilizes a new approach.

At stake is $26 million in pledged state money for the Treasure Valley Reload Center. The state is offering to fund construction of a rail shipping center outside Nyssa – but only if the center makes sense. The county has stumbled time after time in trying to make the case it does, and that has to change immediately.

The state – and the people of Malheur County – need more assurance the reload center will be the economic starter envisioned. A lot of public money is at stake.

Think of this bid like going for a mortgage on your home. Your banker isn’t simply going to take your word you’ll make loan payments. Your bank wants proof that you have income to make the deal work. In this instance, the state is acting a bit like that banker – asking for more certainty that Treasure Valley Reload Center will be profitable for the people of Malheur County and the state.

The work so far has left the state plenty of reason to doubt claims by Malheur County officials, no matter how glossy the presentations. Consider the record in recent months:

* The state at first was told that one piece of ground was needed and the real estate would cost $1.6 million. Then, the state was told that three parcels were needed and the cost was over $3 million. Now, the state is warning county officials that the state will only pay for land needed for the rail center – period. Who’s going to pay for the other land the county has agreed to buy?

* The state was told a container company had signed a deal with Malheur County to handle that type of cargo shipment. In fact, there was no signed deal and the county had to retract the claim. And now Union Pacific Railroad appears to be saying that in any event it doesn’t intend to provide container service to Nyssa.

* The community has been told this is a great jobs creator. When plans were first unveiled, the reload center would create 125 jobs. At a public hearing last summer, that number fell to 80. And by the time Malheur County turned in its bid to the state in September, the numbers got worse – seven full time jobs were projected. What isn’t apparent is whether the onion industry would expand its hiring if rail service comes to Nyssa.

* County officials said they were “inundated” with interest from companies wanting to use a Nyssa shipping center. Then the record showed that a half dozen companies were interested, including a hay processor that now seems aced out of the Nyssa site. And recently Union Pacific said it would ship onions out of Nyssa, but nothing more. The case, it appears, hasn’t been made to profitably ship apples, asparagus and other crops (and most of that would come from Idaho).

* A key part of the case has been that Nyssa would enjoy express service just as onion shippers now get out of the rail center in Wallula, Wash. That streamlined train run shaves days off the time it takes to move onions back east. But now Union Pacific is saying it would provide “manifest” service for Nyssa, apparently meaning there would be no special train and no dramatic saving in time from what onion shippers now get out of existing rail service.

* The county implied that Union Pacific would provide the special refrigerated rail cars used for moving produce. Locally and before state officials, the county ballyhooed word that the railroad was buying new rail cars. Union Pacific, however, has made clear it won’t provide the rail cars needed in Nyssa. County officials assert they’ll get those cars somehow.

Any plan gets changed as reality sets in, but Malheur County’s reload center work has been at times sloppy and at times misleading. That certainly won’t inspire the state “bankers” to write a $26 million check. County officials need to recognize these challenges and act – now.

A critical need is a credible leader, and Grant Kitamura, the Ontario onion man, fits the bill. He is, of course, a significant player in the onion industry. He also is president of the county’s public company, the Malheur County Development Corp. And, importantly, he is on the state Board of Agriculture. Gov. Kate Brown put him there, attesting to her own confidence in him.

Kitamura isn’t one for the spotlight, and prefers to work behind the scenes. He needs to step out from behind that curtain. He needs to bring his business skill and political savvy to the table. He needs to address forthrightly for the state – and for his community – the shortcomings of Malheur County’s plan and how those will be overcome. He needs to stow the platitudes and promises and deal in facts.

Just hoping the state makes the right decision next month isn’t good enough. The county needs to improve its case and improve its candor. Time is running out on one of the best deals ever to come Malheur County’s way. — LZ