NOAA's final answer for fleet is still Oregon

GRANTS PASS — The nation's ocean research agency has given its final answer on the new home base for its West Coast research fleet, and it is the same as the first answer: the port of Newport on the central Oregon Coast.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued its final determination Thursday in the long-running political battle over where the ships would be based after a 2006 dock fire ruled out keeping them in Seattle.

Despite objections raised by alternative sites in Washington state and their representatives in Congress, the final analysis found that the Newport site chosen last August still offered the best value to the government, with the highest technical rating and lowest price when compared with sites in Washington.

Construction has been going on for months at the Newport site, where members of the Oregon congressional delegation and Gov. Ted Kulongoski joined local officials Thursday for ceremonies marking the decision.

"People have been saying about the folks in Newport, 'You think you're gonna win this thing, you're a few fish short of your limit," U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a telephone interview. "This was the case of good policy and winning on the merits beating politics."

Wyden added that a pending inspector general's report could not overturn NOAA's final determination.

Basing four ships, 60 shoreside personnel and 110 crew members at Newport is estimated to pump $19 million a year into the regional economy along the Oregon shore, where tourism has not made up for downturns in logging and commercial fishing during the past two decades.

Oregon kicked in $19 million that allowed Newport to significantly reduce its lease bid to $2.6 million a year compared with $4 million a year for Bellingham, Wash.

NOAA has already signed a $52 million, 20-year lease for the Newport site, and work has started on new shoreside facilities for the fleet. Work on new piers can't start until November.

A spokesman for Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who called for the inspector general's report, said the decision was expected but disappointing.

"At a time when an investigation into the site selection by the Department of Commerce Office of Inspector General is under way, we should not be committing public funds to development of a home port before we know whether there were problems or irregularities with NOAA's original decision," Cantwell spokesman John Diamond said from Washington, D.C.

"At issue in the IG probe is whether NOAA carried out a fair, transparent, logical and legal acquisition process," Diamond said. "We look forward to seeing the inspector general's findings."

NOAA had already reviewed its decision at the behest of the Government Accountability Office and found Newport was still the best choice. The final determination took into account public comments.

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