Principled leadership and an influx of businesses spur dramatic turnaround at the Port of Cascade Locks.
In 2013, the Port of Cascade Locks was ready for a refocus: very little business development was taking place, the budget needed clarity, and the Bridge of the Gods—the Port’s sole source of revenue, at the time—was under threat of closure.
It was just the type of environment where Paul Koch thrives.
For over forty years, Koch has served a unique role in society: he revitalizes stagnant communities. “I usually go to places nobody else would touch,” said Koch. He was initially hired in 2011 as the Interim City Administrator of Cascade Locks, where he facilitated the city’s turnaround. Soon afterwards, the Port of Cascade Locks invited him to assist the elected Port Commission in getting its agenda in motion.
When Koch joined the Port as interim General Manager in 2013, he saw many of the same issues as he did with the City. “There was no mission, no priorities, no values,” he said. “When that happens, and the staff isn’t held accountable for doing their jobs, you end up spending money with nothing to show for it.”
The Port of Cascade Locks has two primary functions: recruit businesses and create jobs. It’s the backbone of the community; if its leadership is stagnant, the economy is, too. For a town as small as Cascade Locks, healthy Port leadership is critical to its survival. “When a small community doesn’t have a government entity to help build its economy, there’s no future,” said Koch. “People just sit and wait for something to happen. But nothing moves.”
So began the rebuild, and Koch started by cleaning house: after 18 months, just one member of the original 20 staff remained. Working with the elected commissioners, he eliminated unnecessary positions and created new ones, such as a Special Projects Coordinator and an Events Coordinator. He and Commission President Jesse Groves recruited Don Mann, General Manager of the Port of Newport for over 20 years, as the Port’s Economic Development Manager.
With a hand-picked staff in place, the Port’s team moved to establish priorities. First was mending the frayed relationship between the City and the Port, ensuring they were working as “hand in glove partners” again. Then came fixing infrastructure—the city’s water system was literally leaking revenue; that project was soon funded and repaired. Other revenue-generating moves were made, like raising the Port’s price of land per acre.
Within 18 months, the Port saw major dividends. It welcomed ten new businesses and created over 100 jobs—remarkable given Cascade Locks’ population of 1,300. The city’s assessed value increased in almost all capacities, and the Port’s business community was in full bloom.
Businesses came for good reason, too. The Port’s Business Park offers perhaps the most cost-competitive space in all of Oregon. Companies have access to the Columbia River and I-84, and are just 45 minutes drive from both the Portland Airport as well as downtown Portland. Best of all is the scenery: by working in the Columbia Gorge, companies are immersed in one of Oregon’s most beautiful and iconic regions.
One business capitalizing on these amenities is Renewal Workshop, who takes discarded clothing from major brands and repurposes them for sale. Nicole Bassett, the company’s co-founder, enjoys the accommodating nature of the Port’s team. She goes to lunch frequently with Port management to discuss current and future business needs. “It’s clear they put us business owners first in their planning,” said Bassett. “Once we’re in, there’s this allegiance—they take our requests seriously and almost always make them happen.”
Part of that accommodation was installing a brand new kitchen for Renewal Workshop, an amenity beyond original design specifications. Though some organizations may balk at the request, the Port’s team found a way to make it work. “Our job is to bring in businesses, to create jobs and to do what’s necessary to ensure growth,” said Koch. “If we need to build a kitchen to get people to stay, then that’s what we’ll do.”
So goes the secret sauce for Koch, whose recipe for resurrecting organizations is simple: do your job and serve the people. “Government employees are public servants,” he said. “It’s not my job to determine what you need—you tell me what you need and we’ll deliver.”
Sternwheeler “Columbia Gorge,” owned by the Port of Cascade Locks and operated under contract by AWI.
As the Port continues to grow, Koch’s work will soon be done. A mess looms elsewhere and he will see to its fixing. If he goes, he’d be leaving the Port of Cascade Locks with plenty to build upon—a growing network of businesses, steady infrastructure, an active and dedicated Port Commission, and the support of Cascade Locks’ tight-knit community.
In terms of the Port’s future, Koch has no concerns whatsoever. When asked about Cascade Locks’ ability to sustain momentum, he beams with confidence: “The elected can now set policy and direction and hold staff to account. With that in place, I think these people will be just fine.”
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