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A word with David Doeringsfeld, general manager of the Port of Lewiston

David Doeringsfeld

Dave Doeringsfeld has what he calls “the best public sector job in the state of Idaho.”

For the past 26 years, he has served as general manager of the Port of Lewiston, a unique position in the landlocked Gem State. Over that time, he has seen it grow, evolve and further its mission of not just facilitating the transport of cargo but also spurring economic growth, job creation and development in North Central Idaho.

He has also been involved in Lewiston’s business incubator, in which several of the area’s successful companies began, and in the endeavor to provide connectivity to Lewiston and its outlying cities via dark fiber.

Although the COVID-19 crisis has caused a slowdown in shipping, the Port of Lewiston’s work has not declined. Its efforts to provide dark fiber not just to Lewiston but to rural communities where internet access is not as stable are proving even more important than usual. With everything from medicine to schooling now happening online, this access is crucial.

Dark fiber is the term for fiber-optic cable that has been laid by companies but is not currently in use and is available to be leased to individuals and other companies. In 2015, the Port of Lewiston decided to pursue deploying and utilizing this network to provide access to the community and encourage economic growth. In conjunction with the nearby Port of Whitman, this endeavor has seen success and is one of the projects Doeringsfeld is most excited about.

Even though Doeringsfeld will be retiring in the next few years, he remains committed to starting new projects and innovations at the port that will leave a legacy of growth.

The Idaho Business Review recently caught up with Doeringsfeld to discuss what is going on at Idaho’s only seaport.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Over the years that you’ve been port manager, you’ve probably seen a lot of changes. What are some of the most significant things that come to mind?

City of Lewiston. File photo

A lot of times when you think about ports it’s about barges going up and down the river, but the responsibilities of what’s involved are much broader. We’re involved in economic development activities, transportation and international trade.

Economic development is probably the area that we spend the most time in. If you look at the mission statements of ports (and there’s 99 ports in the Pacific Northwest — 76 in Washington and 23 in Oregon and Idaho), ports are job creation centers. The last time we did an economic impact study on this, about five years ago by the University of Idaho, the jobs in Lewiston are over 1,800 jobs. Those 1,800 people do not work for the Port of Lewiston, but we develop land and get property available for businesses to locate within the community. 

There’s an economic development organization in town called Valley Vision. They’re going out there and looking for companies to recruit and then helping local companies to expand. And the port is out here developing property and creating space for those companies.

The Port of Lewiston has been looking at other forms of economic development such as providing dark fiber for regional companies. What led you in that direction? How’s it working out?

As far as being involved in dark fiber, constructing a dark fiber network, it’s been working out extremely well. This is our fifth year being involved in building out a dark fiber network. It wasn’t particularly my idea to go in this direction. What we did is we’re partnering in some respects with the Port of Whitman County, Washington. They started in dark fiber probably 15 years ago. And Whitman County is a much larger county. 

So Port of Whitman County started selling dark fiber, and we were paying attention to the success they were having in helping to connect to their communities and looking at it and seeing that the same needs were here in Nez Perce County. It took us a little bit longer to get on board. I think it was definitely a good move on our part. And now the ports work closely together to develop a dark fiber network within this region and it’s been very successful.

Is there any other aspect of economic development you want to let our readers know about? Any other projects?

We have a business incubator program where we’re helping small businesses to get started, get a roof over their heads so they can be able to expand. Like any big business incubator program, you have some businesses that make it and do great and maybe some that don’t make it or maybe aren’t as successful.

One of our tenants that moved out of the business incubator program here probably four years ago is Clearwater Canyon Cellars, a local winery that was just chosen as the Northwest Winery of the Year for 2020. Another would be Seekins Precision. They manufacture guns. They started out making the scope rings in  1,500 square feet here at the port, and now they’ve got a large facility located on the edge of town. They’re doing extremely well.

How is the COVID-19 crisis going to affect things at the port? What are the economic ramifications?

Well, it’s just definitely impacting transportation right now. A large truck company is located in Lewiston, and they’re seeing demand fall off. But that can be seen in a lot of different areas right now. I know there are issues in just moving containers. At this point, warehouses are filling up containers that are coming in from overseas, coastal ports. The inventory is starting to pile up. The final destination for that container right now, maybe that business doesn’t have the ability to store the merchandise in that container. 

Then you’re starting to just kind of see jams right now within the supply chain as everyone’s coping with the slowdown in the economy.

One of the controversies in the region is whether to breach dams on the Snake River to help salmon recovery. What kind of effect would this have on the port? 

Well, it would end river transportation, so it’d have a huge economic impact on our area. The economy of North Central Idaho is built up around the ability to transport agriculture and timber products on the Snake River system. The ag products that we grow here are soft white wheat and lentils and 95-plus percent of those products are actually exported overseas. Likewise the other timber products are exported overseas. So having that river system is our highway to the world.

North Central Idaho is somewhat isolated as far as the proximity to an interstate. What that river provides us with is somewhat similar to south Idaho saying, “We’re just going to close off the I-84.”

What are some long-term plans for the future?

One of the things that we are looking at is the cruise ship industry. The cruise ship industry is growing significantly up and down the Columbia Snake River system. Cruise ships embark from either the Portland area or Astoria and then come all the way up the Columbia Snake River to the valley here. A lot of visitors then go further up into Hells Canyon or to explore the culture of the Nez Perce Tribe. Last year we had over 24,000 visitors come up by cruise boats. That’s definitely more than what we’ll get this year, as you’re well aware.

However, that industry is still growing, and the Port of Lewiston is looking at a cruise ship dock and that’s just because we’ve got so many boats that are coming up and need additional areas for those boats. So that’s one of the areas that we’re looking at expanding into, and I think in the future it would be a great tourism boom for our area.

Are there any other more short-term immediate projects going on?

We’re looking for opportunities there to be able to bring dark fiber to communities beyond the city of Lewiston and be able to reach some of the smaller communities in North Central Idaho and see what those opportunities are. The Port of Lewiston is funding the build-out internally. So it’s a challenge when you’re trying to make a long run in a rural area. You don’t have a lot of customers between Lewiston and, let’s say, Culdesac. That’s a challenge for us right now: how to be able to reach out to other communities within the port district and be able to provide service to those communities.

It’s even more important now with schools being called off because of the coronavirus and trying to provide education on a laptop at home. To provide that connectivity is another aspect of the need to get service. Telemedicine, schooling… just being able to run your business from a rural place — it’s making a significant need right now. 

Tell us about the cargo being transported from the port.

photo of port of lewiston

Barge traffic at the Port of Lewiston. File photo

So one company is Lewis-Clark Terminal, and they’re located here in Lewiston. They’re the largest business on the Columbia Snake River with the most barges on the river. They’re putting over 200 barges on the river every year, exporting primarily soft white wheat from elevators on the lower Columbia River and from there loaded off. Every one of those barges holds 100,000 to 150,000 bushels of wheat. They’re putting out over 200 barges a year, so we’re moving significant volumes of wheat out of this area. We’ve also got barges of wood chips and sawdust for Clearwater Paper. So there’s a significant volume of cargoes that are going up and down the river system. 

The Port of Clarkston right now, with all these passengers coming up, they’re serving four different cruise ship lines on a weekly basis. And that’s usually starting right now, but with the impacts of the coronavirus, those cruise ships aren’t traveling.

About Liz Patterson Harbauer