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Monday, January 22, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bicentennial of Lewis and Clark may bring more business to Astoria area

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ASTORIA, Ore. -- More cruise boats visit Astoria every year, and the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition is expected to be very good for business.

"This community really sees the opportunity we have between 2003 and 2006 as the lever, the hook to put ourselves on the map," said Don Striker, superintendent at the Fort Clatsop National Memorial, where the explorers spent the winter of 1805-1806.

Eleven tour boats visited Astoria last year a combined 132 times, bringing 16,492 passengers.

Last week, Astoria hosted the fifth annual meeting for cruise-boat operators.

Astoria Public Works Director Mitch Mitchum led the event, which is an opportunity for operators to meet local folks who keep the area running, from trash collection to traffic management. The ports of Clarkston, Wash., The Dalles and Hood River were also on hand.

Robert Giersdorf, president of Yacht Ship Cruiseline, pioneered the business on the Columbia River, prompting fellow operators to call him "Mr. Cruise Line."

Raised in Portland, he started out doing Alaska-based cruises but always thought the Columbia was a "kaleidoscope" of attractions, from its lush coastal areas and high desert to its distinct river communities and its rich history.

And when people dock, there are "incredible excursions" within easy reach of the river, he said.

"This is America, right under our noses," he said.

Once the final Snake River dam was completed and he could do a full-week's cruise upriver as well as down, Giersdorf built the Queen of the West.

He's sold that and his Alaska cruises in the last few years, but he's still in the business, where he's witnessed changes that have bolstered his industry.

"Communities like Astoria have blossomed. And people love to circulate in small-town America. They love the fresh air," Giersdorf said.

Increasingly, the best way to enjoy places like the Columbia River Gorge is from the water, he said. "On I-84, you don't dare slow down, or you'll be run over by a truck."

There are two cruise-boat markets - the one in which up to 6,000 passengers travel on big boats and the ones that visit Astoria - little "adventure-cruise" boats in which passengers want to disembark to experience what's on land.

"The Columbia River has a certain mystique," said Dan Yates, president of Portland Spirit. "People want to see and touch that."

Yates' three boats moved 125,000 people a year.

Right now, 90 percent of his cruises remain in the Portland area. But he's looking to start daily day trips to Astoria in 2002 - once he builds the necessary boat.

When Yates moved to Portland in 1994, Astoria was deserted warehouses and decrepit piers, he said.

Now, Astoria's energy is feeding on itself, he said, adding that its rich history is a big plus.

"Astoria is gaining momentum all the time. People here genuinely care - they don't just go through the motions," he said. "I see people like me looking to invest millions of dollars."

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