Cowlitz County’s $1 million sale of the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center came with a hidden price.

County commissioners on Tuesday approved terminating a contract two years early with Hillsboro Aviation Inc., an Oregon aviation company that was using a helipad for tourism at the Hoffstadt Bluffs location along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway. The early termination cost the county $150,000 for the company’s lost revenues, cutting the county’s gain from the visitor center’s sale by 15 percent.

The county agreed to the 10-year contract with Hillsboro Aviation in April 2009 that provided conditions for early termination. Following the sale of the center, the county negotiated down the termination costs. Commissioner Joe Gardner said the company asked for $335,000 initially, claiming about a year’s worth of loss in revenues.

The Cowlitz County Conference Center estimated Hillsboro Aviation averaged $375,000 in gross sales annually from its helicopter at Hoffstadt Bluffs, said Mike Moss, director of the conference center.

Cowlitz County Purchasing Manager Matt Hanson said he never would have agreed on the contract that was executed in 2009 and thinks staff has learned from it.

“If the county had a stronger contract in place, we would not be going through this process,” Hanson said at the commissioners meeting. “You will not see contracts like this, that are this disadvantageous to the county, in the future.”

Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber said the county is still cutting its losses. He said the county agreed to the contract at a time when there was still hope the state would develop an link east-west between Spirit Lake Memorial Highway and U.S. 12/White Pass Highway, allowing for more tourists to drive through the visitor center. However, that idea never had any careful study or support, partly because it would have been a massive expense and may have had to cross parts of the 110,000-acre Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

The county built the visitor center for $3.2 million in 1996, hoping to make it a tourist destination near Mount St. Helens.

“I think it needs to be mentioned that those concerns have been part of our discussions all along,” Weber said, adding that it was an investment decision “that didn’t pan out because of extenuating circumstances.”

Gardner said the county has had significant maintenance costs from the visitor center. He said ultimately, commissioners sold it because the county needed to improve its existing facilities, such as the morgue and 911 center.

“It’s certainly concerning and I’m hoping that in the future, we can do better jobs on this type of negotiations,” Kelso resident Rick Von Rock told the commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting.

Contact Daily News reporter Hayat Norimine at 360-577-7828

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