Supervisors offer support for Nordic Aquafarms incentives

Water system improvements could cost from $16 million to $34 million, says county official

Nordic Aquafarms CEO Erik Heim addressed the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors at the board’s meeting Tuesday. (Lynette Mullen, Nordic Aquafarms –Contributed)
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A Humboldt County task force will attempt to find ways of incentivizing extensive infrastructure improvements at the Samoa Peninsula, where a major aquaculture project is soon to arrive.

Nordic Aquafarms, a highly anticipated fish-farming company promising to create 80 local jobs, wants the county to first address surface water turbidity concerns and a toxic brownfield problem that have existed at the Samoa Peninsula since the closure of the industrial pulp mills last decade.

These infrastructure concerns are outside the scope of Nordic’s project, the company’s chief executive said Tuesday at the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors meeting. He suggested the county set up financial incentives or other funding structures to fix the issues.

“What we are summing up as a question here is what the county’s plan is, in terms of preparing the peninsula with the necessary infrastructure for some of these challenges,” said Erik Heim, the CEO of Nordic Aquafarms.

Scott Adair, the county’s director of economic development, addressed the board alongside Heim. He said the water turbidity treatment could range between $16 million and $34 million in costs.

Nordic’s development, Adair said, is the “catalyst” for the project, but “really, any other development on the peninsula” would benefit from the county addressing the problems.

The county has formed a task force for engaging the development of infrastructure. Supervisors on Tuesday were largely supportive of setting up financial incentives for Nordic to mitigate the costs of cleaning up the pulp mill site and treating the murkier surface water from local rivers.

Shaping up the infrastructure, they mostly agreed, could be a long-term boon for a variety of future businesses.

“Incentives are often strange because you could be just giving money away,” said Supervisor Virginia Bass, whose 4th District includes the Samoa Peninsula. “But the peninsula is on the verge of a rebirth.

“It’s hard for some people to be OK hearing the word incentive, and I think it’s something we just have to start being ready to do,” she continued.

First District Supervisor Rex Bohn suggested off-hand that the financial incentives could take the form of future tax relief, so long as Nordic follows local guidelines as it brings its fish farm off the ground.

The county task force will approach the board with potential incentives at a later date. The task force will include representatives from the county’s economic development, public works and planning and building departments. It will work with other local stakeholders including the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District.

Third District Supervisor Mike Wilson noted that the discussion of infrastructure improvements shouldn’t be limited to Nordic’s plans for aquaculture.

“This is not an unusual discussion that a community might have when we want to seek out economic development,” Wilson said. “It just gets a little bit squirrelly once one company’s asking for that.”

He later said he’s not generally in favor of “tax breaks” for companies, though he conceded these are public infrastructure issues that affect the entire community.

Adair said his department has already been searching for outside grants to address the infrastructure challenges. Ultimately, he said, there would be a cost to avoiding improvements if the county doesn’t address them.

Nordic executives have made the rounds in 2019, making their company pitch to a laundry list of local government bodies and community groups. The company’s plan is to set up indoor, land-based aquaculture tanks.

Fish-farming is not yet a prominent economic venture in California, Heim has noted, which he says leaves room for Humboldt County to come out ahead as a West Coast seafood industry leader.

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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