EDITORIAL: County and partners should stop reload project to assess who benefits

Those responsible for the Treasure Valley Reload Center need to take all the time necessary to figure out what’s ahead. This mess of a project got fresh hope with the arrival of attorney Shawna Peterson as executive director. She wisely has called for a “pause” – and no one should pressure her and her team for a quick fix.

Peterson urged the development company – Malheur County Development Corp. ­­– to slow down. That doesn’t go far enough. There should be a full stop and here’s why.

While short of money, the project now has one plentiful asset and that is time. The promise to ship onions by this year is long gone, shredded by mismanagement and escalating costs. Nothing will move out of the Nyssa site until the fall of 2024 – if then.

In the past five years, the public has sunk millions into this project. Commissioner Ron Jacobs reported last week that the county itself has so far covered more than $700,000 in costs and is forecasting sinking another $3.5 million into the project.

Mind you, those costs are never counted when project leaders talk about the price for the Nyssa depot. So, that $4 million-plus is on top of the roughly $40 million flowing directly through the development company.

The most important statement Peterson made recently was this: “I recommend taking due time to update the project plan, feasibility projections and plans to ensure this project can not only be built but operate successfully.”

She’s on the right track.

The numbers used to justify the Treasure Valley Reload Center are five years old. They were based in part on the fiction that a lot of onions were being trucked to Washington state only to come back through Ontario on eastbound trains. They were based on what were then really guesses at how much business the reload center would get and how much money the public company would make.

But consider this. The reload center went forward after the onion industry insisted its producers would put tons and tons of onions through Nyssa. Yet, apparently only four of 13 shippers who formed the Treasure Valley Onion Shippers have pledged to give business to Nyssa. The development company needs to let Peterson and her team delve deeply into the business case – does it even make sense anymore?

The next critical factor is income. If the reload center goes ahead, millions are likely to be borrowed, using the public’s credit. Someone has to cover the debt payments, and that means the customers of the reload center. But that’s a cost no one expected. The community needs proof – not promises – that the onion shippers and others are willing to pay that new cost. If they aren’t, this should be “no deal.”

At the same time, Peterson, her team and county officials should have the courage to ask even larger questions:

• If you had $40 million to spend today, would you build an onion shipping center? Or is there another more profitable and more beneficial use? Americold, expected to run the Nyssa facility, has 245 plants already. They are shipping experts. What would they build? There may be a chance to pivot, to build something different that creates more jobs and gets taxpayers off the hook.

• What if you just stopped the project and sold it to private developers? That would take some wrangling with the state but it’s possible. Get the county and the development company out of this business entirely, for they have not shown any ability to be developers.

• What if you just fold the development company and put the reload project back into the county’s hands? Remember, the county is stuck with acres of bare ground it dreams of turning into an industrial park. It seems inefficient to have one publicly-paid manager overseeing the reload project and another trying to build industry.

These are big questions that deserve careful work by experts. At every turn, each decision should be clear on one matter: How does this benefit the community?

Meantime, no more money should be spent on construction. Project leaders are eager to spend $2 million promised by the county and $8 million coming from the state. But that spending keeps the project going down the same track it’s on now, assuming what was planned five years ago should still be built today. There is too much risk that Peterson will find that there is no business case or a dramatically changed business case. There is no reason to rush up a building that will sit empty – and may be the wrong building.

Project engineers have tried to prod the spending along, warning costs will climb. That’s no good reason to spend another dime. This has to be done right in a way that serves the community for decades. The development company and especially the county should not be stampeded into spending money because they have it.

The development company board meets July 18. They should be joined by the Malheur County Court and jointly they should decide, openly and with clarity, to stop this project for now. Peterson is on the right track. She should be free to focus on one question: What’s the best path ahead? Asking her to also manage on again, off again construction only forces her and her team to needlessly keep too many plates spinning. The community deserves her full effort to finally figure out how to rescue this project from complete failure.  ­– LZ