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Newport will be the new base for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's research ships on the West Coast, the federal agency announced Tuesday.

NOAA said it plans to move its Pacific operations center for maritime research from Seattle to Newport in 2011.

The move is pending the signing of a 20-year lease and will make Newport the home port of four NOAA ships, and will be the base for up to two visiting ships.

The base in Seattle currently has about 175 employees, including 110 officers and crew assigned to the NOAA ships McArthur II, Miller Freeman, Rainier and Bell M. Shimada, a new fisheries survey vessels expected to join the NOAA fleet in 2010.

The operations center has been on Seattle's Lake Union for nearly 50 years. In addition to Seattle and Newport, Bellingham and Port Angeles, Wash., had hoped to be chosen for the base.

Since March, NOAA has been headed by Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State University scientist. A spokesman for Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., understood she had taken herself out of the homeport selection process.

NOAA said it selected Newport following a extensive review of proposals submitted by sites in Washington and Oregon, both centrally located for all NOAA ship operations on the West Coast. The current lease expires on June 30, 2011.

NOAA's requirements for the new site include office and warehouse space, berthing for four NOAA ships and up to two visiting ships, and LEED-certified, environmentally sustainable main buildings.

Newport, long famed as a vacation and fishing spot on the central Oregon coast, has developed in recent years as a research center, with OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center and the nearby Oregon Coast Aquarium on the south side of Yaquina Bay. The new NOAA base would be in the same South Beach area, said Don Mann, general manager of the Port of Newport.

"It's a tremendous opportunity for Newport and the Port of Newport," Mann said.

Rear Adm. Jonathan W. Bailey, director of the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, stressed the selection depends on lease negotiations and said he could provide few details until the deal is completed. But he said the goal was to get the best value for the government.

In a news release, NOAA said it based its choice on Newport's ability to meet its infrastructure needs, closeness to maritime industry resources and NOAA labs, quality of life for employees, and the ability to meet the planned occupancy date of July 2011. The current lease in Seattle expires on June 30 of that year.

Mann said the new base, expected to cost between $35 million and $38 million, would be on a 10-acre site that would include all new warehouses, offices and labs, a 1,500-foot pier for the ships and a small boat dock.

The port will pay for the project through a combination of revenue bonds and money from the state of Oregon, with lease payments covering the bond interest, he said.

The lease itself "will not be a substantial windfall for the port," Mann said. But he said the economic spinoff to the region, including the 175 base employees, construction jobs and a stable port tenant for at least 20 years, will be substantial.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., welcomed the selection of Newport to be the new home of NOAA's Marine Operations Center-Pacific.

"Bringing the NOAA fleet to the Central Oregon coast will provide a much-needed economic boost to the region," Wyden said. "Newport's close proximity to the Pacific Ocean means that NOAA will have fast, cost-saving access to the open ocean that will maximize the fleet's time at sea and reduce future costs and easy access to all the complimentary research facilities already housed at Newport."

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., said, "So much credit for today's announcement goes to everyone at the Port of Newport who tirelessly pressed their case, as well as the state Legislature which authorized the bonding authority needed to help build the infrastructure to support the fleet."

The NOAA fleet of vessels and aircraft is operated by the NOAA Office of Marine and Aviation Operations, which includes civilians and officers of the NOAA Corps, one of the nation's seven uniformed services.

NOAA's Lake Union base in the middle of Seattle is on privately owned land. The agency also has laboratories and offices a few miles to the east on Lake Washington, and those facilities will remain.

A 2006 fire destroyed piers and two buildings at the Lake Union site, forcing NOAA ships to moor elsewhere in the city until the piers could be rebuilt.

U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she was "extremely disappointed" by Tuesday's decision and intends to fight it.

"As chair of the Senate subcommittee that oversees NOAA, I'm not confident that all options have been thoroughly reviewed through this process," she said in a news release.

"I intend to push NOAA and the Department of Commerce to make sure that every option has been given full consideration before a move actually occurs," she said.

 

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