The Center is the base for 10 research vessels and employs about 175 people. Its lease in Seattle ends in 2011 and Newport was one of five cities that put in a bid. In a move that was almost South Carolinian in generosity, Newport offered to build a new pier for NOAA using state lottery money and charge a lower rental price than its competitors. NOAA said "sure."
But yesterday, at the behest of Bellingham, the federal Government Accountability Office (or GAO) stepped in and said "not so fast."
Maria Cantwell, whose Senate committee oversees NOAA, criticized the decision at the time vowing that she would "push NOAA and the Department of Commerce to make sure that every option has been given full consideration before a move actually occurs."
Cantwell and Patty Murray later sent a letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke arguing that the move took NOAA's ships too far from existing laboratories in Seattle.
But it was the Port of Bellingham, another bidder for the Center, that took a more practical approach. The port there filed a complaint with the GAO arguing that the pier Newport planned to build was in a floodplain. Federal rules prohibit agencies from building in flood-prone areas unless there are no viable alternatives.
NOAA denied that the proposed pier was in a floodplain. But the GAO found discussions between NOAA and Newport specifically discussing how Newport could build the pier high enough to escape flood damage.
The GAO is now suggesting NOAA look at alternative locations, though that still may not help Seattle. According to the Seattle Times, Newport plans to keep building the pier. And Bellingham is hoping to reap the rewards of its gamesmanship--even though the city has probably pissed off the agency it's trying to woo.
"Of course we remain hopeful that NOAA will locate its ships in Bellingham," Bellingham Port Commissioner Scott Walker said in a statement yesterday. "That has been the Port's goal from the beginning."