(First published in the Coast River Business Journal)
ASTORIA — Fourteen years ago, Floyd Holcom purchased the James O. Hanthorn Cannery with two other investors. Neither of Holcom’s partners are still involved with the waterfront property. However, Holcom maintains a steady restoration of the mammoth structure—equaling more than two city blocks. Sustaining an over-the-water structure has unique problems. “Sometimes I’m under the building at 3:00 AM sawing (floating) logs battering the pilings,” said Holcom. The tide dictates when he can tend to those inherent hazards. “Sometimes that’s early in the morning,” recalled Holcom. “If I don’t, it will break up my building.”
Constructed in 1875, the James O. Hanthorn Cannery was Astoria’s second such facility. The structure is set on an island, four rock outcroppings, approximately 500 feet from the river’s edge. In 1897, the property became a part of the Columbia River Packers Association (CRPA). The complex was used, for most of its history, as a cold storage plant. Holcomb believes it was at one time the largest such plant in the United States. The facility is one of a handful of Lower Columbia River, CRPA operated structures remaining.
“I didn’t have a plan early,” admits Holcom. However, he started by repairing the roof and preventing further water damage to the structure. Then he downsized the building’s industrial-sized electrical panels. “We had massive transformers and three-phase power. We had more power than we needed.” A preservation plan quickly emerged. “My priority for preserving the building was simple,” he said. “If there were no income being generated, there is no money to maintain it.” Holcomb improved the property just enough to attract tenants who could help fund further restoration.
In 2007, his first anchor tenant, Rogue Ales Public House, arrived. Jack Joyce, co-founder of the company, contacted Holcomb after reading an article about the cannery in The Oregonian. “Everything we’ve done—including paving (39th Street)—has aided to the preservation the building,” stated Holcomb. He also encouraged development around the cannery. “If we were out here by ourselves, we wouldn’t have tenants,” he said. Furthermore, “Everything we make all goes back to keep the building up and running.”
“I rely on the (structure’s) historic status for breaks in the building code,” explained Holcom. Steve Winstead, a building inspector, has been “great help” keeping the structure safe, functional and historic. “I try to maintain the old image as much as possible,” he says. Holcom successfully maintains a combination of traditional and new venues within the building. That mix blends an authentic experience for tenants and visitors alike. “We still bring salmon, crab and eel onto the dock (in front of Coffee Girl).”
The complex includes the Fisherman’s Suites, a three-room penthouse hotel. Its views sweep to the Columbia River’s mouth. When Holcom first purchased the property, he stripped the penthouse down to its bones. Later, he cautiously added only the simplest details such as CVG wood trim. Holcom asked some of his first hotel guests, “What would you do with the room?” “Nothing,” was always the response. No one wanted anything to distract from the space and its views.
Importance of preservation
Holcom recalled a conversation with John McGowan, former president of Bumble Bee Seafoods which purchased the CRPA properties. McGowan was adamant that the building be saved. “John told me, ‘You aren’t just preserving the building, you are preserving the memory the building and the Columbia River Packers Association. This cannery is the foundation of our industry.’” Holcom promised to preserve rather than tear down the structure. “We need to keep doing it,” stated Holcom. “Otherwise, the Hanthorn is going to be lost.”