2017-12-29 / Community

South Portland kicks off pier expansion project

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


Sam Merrill, senior practice leader for Portland-based GEI Consulting Engineers and Scientists, speaks at a kickoff meeting Dec. 14 for the Portland Street Pier master planning process his company will lead. The final plan is expected to present at least three design alternatives for the outdated pier, preparatory to overhauling it as a commercial hub for the aquaculture industry, a project pegged at around $2 million. (Duke Harington photo) Sam Merrill, senior practice leader for Portland-based GEI Consulting Engineers and Scientists, speaks at a kickoff meeting Dec. 14 for the Portland Street Pier master planning process his company will lead. The final plan is expected to present at least three design alternatives for the outdated pier, preparatory to overhauling it as a commercial hub for the aquaculture industry, a project pegged at around $2 million. (Duke Harington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The city of South Portland is known the world over for its microchip industry. But what many don’t know is that the tech companies that make up that sector landed in South Portland starting in 1962, when the city threw up a voluminous building on spec out on its western outskirts, home at the time to little more than trees and pig farms, simply on the hope of luring some company to call South Portland home.

Now, city leaders are taking a similar step, but this time with an eye toward an industry that’s kind of been in its wheelhouse from the very start, even if it does go by a fancier name these days – aquaculture.

But it’s been a bit of a slow start.

The city council first broached the topic at the behest of District 1 representative Claude Morgan in July 2016, who felt the underutilized public pier that juts into Casco Bay off the end of Portland Street, although in need of maintenance, was ripe for development into a worldclass facility that could act as a commercial hub to become a commercial hub for processing shellfish, kelp, and seaweed, among other sea life. Located between the Sunset Marina and the Portland Pipe Line terminal, the pier currently hosts 12 lobster boats, while two additional slips are now considered unusable.

But the idea laid fallow during the transition of city managers, and was not taken up again until January. Then at a February meeting, the council voted against paying for an economic feasibility study on the potential cost of overhauling the pier, a project pegged to run as high as $2 million.

Instead, the council agreed in April to apply for a $30,000 Shore and Harbor Planning Grant, offered by the Maine Coastal Program of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry, to augment $25,000 already earmarked from a $25,000 Greater Portland Public Development Commission grant to create a master plan for the future of the pier. In August, word came that the city had won that grant and, at a Nov. 6 meeting, the council picked GEI Consulting Engineers and Scientists of Portland to do draft the plan. GEI put in the lowest offer of four bidders for the contract, at $46,849.

On Thursday, GEI hosted a kickoff meeting, laying out its planning process to a group of about 25 interested city and business leaders from both South Portland and Portland, as well as the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. GEI is report is expected to deliver a “needs assessment” report by the end of February, which will then get filtered through a series of at least three design alternatives for the pier as part of a final master plan.

According to Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, who first addressed the council on the topic in 2016, Maine is poised to capture a significant share of the growing seafood market, given that it sits 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 a $160 million and $200 million. It provides “hundreds of jobs,” he said.

Morgan has posited that 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 marke.

The city’s economic development committee agrees.

“Please note that this type of facility does not currently exist in Greater Portland,” wrote committee chairman Ross Little, in a December 2016 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 2016 by The Hale Group of Danvers, Massachusetts, 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 you heartstrings here, but that’s a possibility. Time is of the essence.”

To help facilitate whatever plan GEI comes up with, the city has already taken steps to help make the winning proposal a reality. Recently, councilors agreed to amend its tax increment financing (TIF) districts, gaining state approval to use captured revenue from either the Downtown or Hannaford TIF programs for economic development of the pier.

“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 be 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 he voted to support study of a pier expansion, Councilor Eben Rose raised some 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, to as low as $20,527 in 2015. 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.”

Parking was raised as an issue at last week’s kickoff meeting, with GEI’s senior practice leader Sam Merrill agreeing it will need “a creative solution.”

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