Sunday, February 11, 2018

City Makes Final Loss of Use Payment to Willamette Queen

Not for sale - yet
Buried in the front-page feature on the Willamette Queen is news that the City has made the final payment on the $250,000 "loss of use" agreement with the Willamette Queen over navigating the slough and the loss of use caused by the Minto Bridge.
The city of Salem worked with the Chesbroughs when construction of the Peter Courtney Minto Island Pedestrian Bridge restricted use of the Willamette Slough and put a crimp in business.

The city agreed to pay them $50,000 a year for five years to make up for lost revenue. The Chesbroughs, who pay $350 a month to the city for moorage at Riverfront Park, received the final payment in January.
That's good news, but the tone's not quite right. Here's what the Willamette Queen said in their letter of August 2011 supporting the agreement and the permit application process (here is the 2014 amended agreement):
This is a letter in support of the application by the Urban Renewal Agency of the City of Salem for a permit to construct a low-span bridge across the Minto Island Slough...Although the low-span bridge will limit access to the Willamette River Slough...we will be able to continue to operate...and understand the benefit the bridge will provide to the community....the bridge will provide an important link in Salem's bike and pedestrian trail system ...[and] will open up Salem's riverfront area, an underutilized amenity in Salem, making it more accessible to the public. We support the Agency's application, and urge you to approve it without delay.
It's not at all clear the bridge put a "crimp" on business. If anything, the bridge increases foot traffic by the boat and increases visibility for the boat. The "loss of use" payments were to compensate for any loss of use, and were fairly negotiated. Because of the framework of 19th century river navigation law, the Queen had enormous leverage over the City of Salem and its desire for the Minto Bridge. There is no reason to think the City underpaid for the loss of use, and there are instead many reasons to think that the City actually overpaid in order to secure an agreement and to be able to move forward in a timely way. An article that makes a claim about a "crimp" should document it, and not merely accept the statement uncritically.

More generally, instead of a feature the article could have been a more deeply researched news piece on how the Queen functions in the full context of the park and what its future might be.

But instead it's advertising for them, occasioned by a different advertisement, one they seem to regard as unfortunate - though it is itself generating a new round of "earned media" advertising with the front-page placement, so maybe it's not so unwelcome after all.
Unbeknownst to the Chesbroughs, their niece posted the sternwheeler on the popular classified advertisement website with a detailed description and her contact information. No price information, though.

The listing was spotted Thursday night under the category 'boats for sale by owner in Salem.'

"She is on my you-know-what list," Richard Chesbrough said of his neice. "She had no permission whatsoever to do this."

The listing has since been removed from the site, but it was posted for nearly two weeks.

Now Richard and his wife are worried about optics.
"Altona" leaving Salem, 1898
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
"Altona" and "Elwood" at Trade St Dock, 1893
(Salem Library Historic Photos)
They are right to worry about optics. It's a diesel and fiberglass facsimile! The whole operation is fake in a way. It mines a Disneyfied kind of nostalgia rather than something more historical and authentically felt.
The Willamette Queen's arrival revived a nostalgic past. Salem has a rich history as a riverboat town. The last sternwheeler to operate regularly on the river south of Portland went out of service in 1908, according to newspaper archives....With the nostalgia came a price for the Chesbroughs, including a sometimes rocky relationship with the U.S. Coast Guard. Regular hull inspections are required, including a dry-dock inspection every five years that sometimes takes weeks and cripples their business.
The claim that the boat inspections "cripple" the business seems especially one-sided. Regular inspections should be understood as an ordinary "cost of business," and not a crippling intervention by red-tape. What is the realistic alternative to these inspections?

As a feature, the piece is unbalanced, uncritical, and missed out on an opportunity to look at the Willamette Queen in the context of the Riverfront Park Master Planning process. It could have looked more closely at what subsidies it requires, and what other things at Riverfront Park we might be missing because of it. There seems to be a lively debate right now between those who want a quiet Riverfront Park, full of green and "open space," and those who would like a livelier Park with additional amenities and a more constant presence with people. Would, for example, a boat house for kayaks and other small craft now be of greater civic benefit than the Willamette Queen? As a kind of restaurant, does it fit into our current vision for the Park or do we need to look at more permanent riverfront dining amenities?

There is a lot of room for a follow-up news and analysis piece here. (The next Open House on the Park is on the 22nd!)

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