2017-01-13 / Front Page

South Portland plans pier expansion

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

A pair of pick-up trucks fill the available space at the Portland Street Pier in South Portland, on Tuesday. The city council plans to vote next month on a plan to add more berths to the site, and expects to authorize creation of a master plan to widen and extend the pier, in hopes of supporting the state's burgeoning aquaculture industry. (Duke Harrington photo) A pair of pick-up trucks fill the available space at the Portland Street Pier in South Portland, on Tuesday. The city council plans to vote next month on a plan to add more berths to the site, and expects to authorize creation of a master plan to widen and extend the pier, in hopes of supporting the state's burgeoning aquaculture industry. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — Six months after first broaching an expansion to the city owned Portland Street Pier, South Portland city councilors returned to the issue Monday, Jan. 9, with virtually nothing accomplished.

Councilor Claude Morgan, who represents Ferry Village, where the pier is located, hopes to see the city revitalize the pier – which has been deemed “significantly under-used” by South Portland’s economic development committee – into a commercial hub for processing shellfish, kelp and seaweed.

According to Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, who addressed the council on the topic in July, Maine is poised to capture a significant share of the growing seafood market, being, as it is, within “24 hours of delivering produce to more than 150 million consumers.”

Belle said the 190 firms already in existence, which he represents, have an annual economic impact in Maine of between $160 million and $200 million. It provides “hundreds of jobs,” he said.

By expanding and widening the Portland Street Pier, and adding winches to haul product to a dockside processing plant, South Portland can become a key player in that market, Morgan said.

“Please note that this type of facility does not currently exist in greater Portland,” wrote economic development committee Chairman Ross Little, in a Dec. 17 memo to the council. “Because of this we cannot overstate how great an opportunity the expansion of Portland Street Pier is for South Portland.”

According to a 65-page report prepared in October by The Hale Group of Danvers, Mass., for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, industry growth in the growing of mussels and oysters means Maine will need at much as 600 acres of underwater farmland by 2030, a growth over current leased spots of about 40 acres per year.

For that reason, Morgan said, it is imperative for the city to act as quickly as possible and not get too bogged down in long-term visioning.

“My fear here is that if this becomes too academic and far too costly in time, there may well be another municipality out there that could steal this thunder out from underneath us,” he said. “I don’t mean to play on your heartstrings here, but that’s a possibility. Time is of the essence.”

So why the six-month delay in setting the wheels in motion? Morgan has a theory.

“At our last workshop, what I thought I heard was a lot of enthusiasm,” he said, “but I think what happened when we walked out that door was we had really not provided enough guidance about how to move forward here.”

When introducing the topic back in July, he had initially hoped to see “something in the water” by this spring. On Monday, Morgan still held that out as a possibility, although others suggested a full-build out of the pier cannot hope to begin for at least a year, until a harbor wide shoreland dredging project is complete, and until the city manages to get state approval of a TIF (tax increment financing) district amendment needed to help fund the project.

What Morgan was able to secure Monday night was an agreement from interim City Manager Don Gerrish to come back to a regular council meeting, as soon as February, with detailed plans and cost estimates to add between six and eight berths to the 13 usable public slips at the pier. Two of the 15 now there are currently unusable, according to Kevin Adams, the city’s director of parks, recreation and waterfront, in part because of the need for dredging.

Meanwhile, Gerrish said, he and Assistant City Manager Josh Reny will initiate the process of amending one or more TIF districts, seeking to gain state approval to use captured revenue from either the downtown or Hannaford TIF districts for economic development of the pier.

Longterm, the city will use a $25,000 grant given in August by the Greater Portland Public Development Commission as part of its dissolution distribution, to pay for a master plan for the pier. That plan would envision a permanent expansion of the pier with an eye toward expanding it beyond docking of lobster boats to a facility sufficient to support the nascent aquaculture industry.

“This is an industry that, by all appearances, has boom written all over it,” Morgan said. “But right now we are not even capturing market value on the pier, because we are providing below-market leases to South Portlanders who are lobstermen. Now I am not trying to raise the question of whether we should we doing that or not. But what we are doing right now really does not have an impact on that industry as a whole. But if we support an industry that is trying to get a foothold in our bay, I would submit to you that that is a better use of our funds.”

Currently, the city rents out slips at the pier, located off Front Street between the pier that houses the Saltwater Grill and Sunset Marina, and the tanks and operations of Portland Pipe Line Corp.

Although supports the expansion, Councilor Eben Rose raised concern for how much can be accomplished without agreements from neighbors on either side. Pipeline facilities actually run underground on both sides of Portland Street.

“What we have is a very narrow lane with barbed wire on either side,” Rose said. “That seems to be to be a literal kink point to any sort of expansion of this facility.”

Rental revenue from the pier has been on the decline, from $26,075 in 2014 to $20,527 this past summer. Slips are rented at the rate of $1,250 for the season, from mid-April to early November. One of the unused berths is used to dock the city’s fire boat. Some councilors, including Susan Henderson, questioned how the city expects to fill new slips when it had two that went unused last season. Is there actual demand, she wondered aloud, or is the project built on a sea of dreams, in the sense of, “if you build it, they will come.”

That’s an important consideration given that one cost estimate provided last July pegged full revitalization of the pier at nearly $225,000, and that was before adding in state permitting costs.

“There just hasn’t been much of a demand, mostly because we haven’t really marketed it,” Adams said of current pier use. “We cater mostly to the local residents.”

Meanwhile, Reny said that, in addition to showing the pier to several engineers since July, he has also been talks with a few aquaculture firms.

“Many have indicated they would be interested as soon as there is space,” he said.

However, the pier needs more to support aquaculture than a boat slip. In addition to a winch and other equipment and infrastructure, the wooden building now on the pier needs to rehabbed, if not replaced. It has been vacant since May when an attempt to rent it drew a single bidder. That lease deal fell through however when it was discovered the building has suffered structure damage from nesting pigeons. It cannot be used during winter as is anyway, because of a need to shut of water to keep pipes from freezing.

“I think it’s fair to say there are some capital improvements that will be required in the years ahead,” Reny said. “At the very least I think we need to do some type of a study to determine what kind of improvements need to be made and how much would those cost.”

For that reason, Reny said he will also move forward on a master plan for what Morgan dubbed Phase II of the pier expansion.

“Right now, we can get the buzz going for under $50,000,” he said, “but if you look at how far out docks at the Sunset Marina go, we can go at least as far. Right now we go only about one-fifth of the way out to that point. So, we have an incredible strip of submerged land that we can develop.”

Reny cautioned that procuring an engineer to prepare that report, which is outside the scope of expertise for both the city’s planning and development staff, and its contracted engineering firm, Sebago Technics, might not be easy.

“We’ve engaged a few engineers to come and look at the site and I’ve come to the realization that there are really only a couple of people who are in this business,” Reny said. “This isn’t something staff is going to be able to do. We need to hire experts in the maritime industry to analyze some of these questions. We’re going to need to contract with somebody in the industry who is a specialist in that.”

“So, forget 2018. Hello 2019 and possibly 2020,” Morgan said. “But I think there is low-hanging fruit that can be had without a master plan.”

Even after a master plan for a full buildout is drafted, Reny said costs will not stop at paying for that report and any construction to which the council may agree. Unless the city chooses to create a co-op of some sort, or else simply lease the site as it does the Spring Point Marina property, it could take a bump in staffing to oversee the pier.

“One of the things that I’m a bit concerned about is that, if we are as successful as we hope to be, then I don’t think that city government, in the parks and waterfront department as it is today, that we have the resources in terms of labor and time to fully manage this type of facility,” Reny said. “ So, we would be looking at either an increase in staff to properly manage the facility, or we could be looking to outsource operation and management to a co-op, or we could make a straight up lease agreement, as we do at the Spring Point Marina.”

Those considerations are down the road, however. Apart from adding a few new berths possibly as soon as the coming season, the balance of the project will have to wait on the master plan, as well as completion of dredge work and state approval of TIF amendments for partial financing. The baywide dredging work is about a year out, while it could take at least that long a green light on the TIF dollars.

“There’s one woman in Augusta who handles all TIF requests, and she’s got a stack on her desk like this,” Councilor Linda Cohen said, holding her hand about two feet above the council dais.

Even so, some councilors, not just Morgan, are raring to go.

“I think we have lost time, we have wasted time, and really, this (pier) has not been well taken care of. So, I’m ready to move forward,” Councilor Maxine Beecher said. “Politicians tend to sit on their hands, but I think this is something where we need to pick up our hands and say, “Let’s go.”

Meanwhile, Councilor Eban Rose had one request of the final facility: “I like to have whatever we build have some aesthetic appeal. Or at least, don’t be ugly,” he said.

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