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February 24, 2014
Q&A

Portland's waterfront gets renewed interest

PHOTo / Dave Cleaveland
PHOTo / Dave Cleaveland

1. Thompson's Point

Status: proposed

Completion date: Multi-phase project, six-10 years

Developer: Thompson Point Development Co. Inc.

Size: 30 acres

Usage: Sports arena to house the city's professional basketball team, the Maine Red Claws, as well as the Circus Conservatory of America, a sports medicine lab, offices, restaurants and a hotel

Development cost: $105 million

2. 40 West Commercial St.

Status: purchased

Purchase date: summer 2013

Buyer: Phineas Sprague

Size: 23 acres

Usage: Relocated boatyard from the Portland Co. complex. Negotiations between several parties are under way to extend the Pan-Am rail line across the property to provide direct rail access to Eimskip

3. International Marine Terminal

Status: upgraded

Completion date: 2011

Current use: headquarters to Icelandic shipping company Eimskip

Development cost: $5 million

4. Central Waterfront Zone

Current use: home to Portland Fish Pier, 14 private piers, Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the majority of the city's commercial fishing fleet and many marine and non-marine businesses

5. Ocean Gateway International Marine Passenger Terminal

Completion date: 2011

Current use: cruise ship docking

Development cost: $20.5 million

6. Maine State Pier

Current use: Casco Bay Lines Ferry Terminal

7. Portland Co. Complex

Status: sold

Sell date: summer 2013

Seller: Phineas Sprague

Buyer: CPB2 LLC (includes Jim Brady, Dick Prentice and Casey Prentice)

Size: 10 acres, 1,000 feet of water frontage

Usage: offices, restaurants, retail

Property value: $1.9 million

Eimskip's impact on Portland's waterfront

John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, says the increased trade opportunities resulting from Eimskip's decision to relocate its North American headquarters to Portland are a direct outgrowth of the $5 million upgrade at the International Marine Terminal paid for with federal transportation funds in 2011. Those improvements expanded the pier by 5,000 square feet and doubled its weight capacity.

"The city and state mutually agreed that the port authority was in the best position to market and operate the facility," Henshaw says of the lease agreement, reached in June 2009. "Eimskip specifically acknowledged the upgrades to the facility as one of the reasons they would come to Portland."

Henshaw says Eimskip offers an entirely different type of service from predecessors such as the startup shipping company American Feeder Lines that in 2012 closed its weekly service connecting Boston, Portland and Halifax, Nova Scotia, after only nine months of operation.

"Eimskip is providing direct liner service to eastern Canada, Scandinavia and northern Europe as opposed to the 'feeder' services offered by its predecessor," he says. "Feeder services carry containers to larger ports, in these cases to Halifax and New York, to be trans-shipped onto other carriers. Eimskip offers direct access to existing and entirely new markets for Maine companies. Additionally, Eimskip brought its own existing freight to the service. Portland provides them a gateway to and from the American market."

Describing Eimskip as the "premier carrier of refrigerated cargo in the North Atlantic," Henshaw says the Icelandic shipping company provides a natural partnership for Portland's fish processors. "Many importers of seafood in the Northeast depend on the service," he says.

Although it's been mentioned as a possibility that would further enhance Eimskip's capabilities at the International Marine Terminal, Henshaw says there are no plans currently for construction of a cold storage facility at the site.

From east to west and everything in between, Portland's waterfront is changing.

Last summer, Phineas Sprague sold the 10-acre Portland Co. complex on the city's eastern waterfront to the CPB2 LLC development group, an area of the city's waterfront long identified as well suited for a mix of offices, restaurants and retail businesses that could blend with renovation of the area's historic buildings. That sale, in turn, enabled Sprague to relocate his Portland Yacht Services boatyard to an undeveloped parcel just west of the Casco Bay Bridge.

Then there's Icelandic shipping company Eimskip's decision to relocate its North American headquarters to Portland, which is considered a catalyst for investment and new trade opportunities at the International Marine Terminal just west of the central waterfront zone.

And on the western-most end, developers of the $105 million Thompson's Point project along the Fore River are proceeding with their plans to create a mixed-use development that includes an events arena that will be the home for the Maine Red Claws, up to 120 condominium residences and the nation's first accredited circus school, the Circus Conservatory of America.

The point man for making sure these and other projects remain true to the city's long-term goals for waterfront development is Bill Needelman, who moved into the newly created job of waterfront coordinator on Dec. 16. Needelman spent more than 14 years in the city's planning department and brings a deep understanding of the geography, players and policy history of the waterfront. He half-jokingly attributes his expertise to the fact that as a Portland native, he actually knows one pier from another and can find his way along those wharves.

During his stint in the planning office, he worked on the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan, rezoning and policy development for the Central Waterfront District, planning for the Maine State Pier and a number of smaller-scale developments along the waterfront. He's had a hand in creating the overriding development strategy that calls for concentrating passengers on the eastern end; fisheries and mixed-use and tourism on the central waterfront; and freight and industry on the western end.

Needelman says it will be his job to balance the needs of the working waterfront with opportunities for compatible industrial and commercial development. Mainebiz caught up with him recently at his office in city hall to talk about developments that have the potential to transform Portland's waterfront in the decade to come.

The following is an edited transcript.

Mainebiz: Can you explain what the city's new waterfront coordinator position is all about?

Bill Needelman: It's a liaison position. Primarily, the thought is that the waterfront coordinator will be the eyes and ears of the executive department on the waterfront, but also the eyes and ears of the waterfront within city hall.

MB: With Eimskip's arrival last year and development proposals such as Thompson's Point, it seems economically Portland's waterfront is heating up. Would you agree?

BN: Absolutely. I think we're looking at a happy coincidence of several trends. Strategies [for development along the waterfront] have been in place for a while now, essentially starting in 1992 and moving forward. As much change as there's been, there has been a basic framework that gives stability to our plans and policies for the waterfront and that's allowed certain ideas to mature where they now can meet up with an economy that's coming out of the doldrums. When we're looking at potential developments on the eastern waterfront at the Portland Co. complex, the return of the Nova Scotia ferry, the growth of freight opportunities with Eimskip and the International Marine Terminal under the management of the port authority, and the boat yard opportunities on the western waterfront — all of those opportunities fit within existing planning parameters. These opportunities are simply implementing the plans and policies that we have in place.

MB: What are some of the opportunities envisioned on the eastern waterfront?

BN: The idea of the Eastern Waterfront Master Plan is that in bringing international ferry and cruise ship operations to the same place where we already had the Casco Bay Island Ferry Service, it would create a passenger complex of statewide significance. We knew that decision to concentrate passenger activities would then generate commercial development interest — not just on the water side but on the land side as well — in a way that continues the development pattern that we see in the Old Port and in our traditional neighborhoods.

Portions of the master plan have already been implemented in the eastern waterfront — when we look at Thames Street, which is the extension of Commercial Street past Ocean Gateway, and the extension of Hancock Street down to the water. We see the two hotel developments in that area, each of which was consistent with the policies established back in 2004. We expect that same type of development would continue east and the redevelopment of The Portland Co. complex would be an important part of that.

MB: What about the growth of Portland as a cruise ship destination? And the return of ferry service to and from Nova Scotia?

BN: Well, the return of the Nova Scotia ferry is very exciting. The links between Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, and Portland are longstanding and heartfelt and we are excited that Nova Star Cruises is looking to reestablish that service. We're working hard to ensure a successful startup.

For the cruise industry, the number of ships is relatively steady, but the number of passengers is growing. We're seeing more visits by larger vessels. It's becoming a mature industry for Portland with well-established support services and excursions for the cruise ship passengers. When the cruise ships first started to come in larger numbers, I remember one retailer noting that it was like getting an additional Christmas season.

MB: Where does the central waterfront begin?

BN: Maine State Pier is officially part of the eastern waterfront and from Buoy Park moving west is the central waterfront until you get to the International Marine Terminal. So the traditional finger piers and those areas that include the Portland Fish Pier are all what we call the central waterfront.

It's a uniquely Portland mix. It's essentially a 19th century development form that has undergone several transformations. They were originally developed for rail commerce, and they've transitioned into fishing piers, but there always has been a strong component of mixed uses down on Commercial Street.

The piers continue to change, but we prioritized commercial berthing and reserving a majority of the space for commercial marine work. Commercial Street itself, in 2008, was named a great street by the American Planning Association. It's a tourist destination and the zoning and the policies now allow it to become more retail orientated and pedestrian orientated. But when people come to Commercial Street, they're coming into a true working environment.

When we look at the postcard images of lobster boats on Portland Pier and Custom House Wharf, it's not only a pretty picture, every vessel is a small business. So having lobster boats along the pier side is an integral part of a functioning economic system.

MB: Heading west …?

BN: There's the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which is now a stable and longstanding component of the waterfront. And there are four piers that are west of the Gulf of Maine Research: Hobson's Wharf, Berlin Mills Wharf, Holyoke, Sturdivant's and Deake's. These are some of our older piers and traditionally [there have been] some concerns about their condition because of their age. These are 19th century piers. But we've seen incremental investments by the pier owners at each of these piers, and that means there is increased confidence that those investments will pay off in the long term.

MB: The International Marine Terminal seems to be coming into its own, particularly with the arrival of Eimskip.

BN: The foundation for that success was laid a couple of years ago, when the Maine Port Authority used $5 million in federal funds to make a significant upgrade to the International Marine Terminal property. That really laid the groundwork for bringing Eimskip in as a primary operator. Eimskip's arrival provides direct access to European markets for Maine goods and it brings in commodities like frozen fish that can be processed here in Portland. It's definitely a two-way street.

Right now, the majority of the freight at the International Marine Terminal is coming into the United States. But Eimskip provides very affordable shipping back to Europe in what would otherwise be empty container boxes. So, we've increased the efficiency of moving Maine goods into international markets through this partnership.

MB: How did bringing in the port authority change operations?

BN: By bringing in the Maine Port Authority as a port operator at the International Marine Terminal, which is relatively new for both the state and for Portland, that's helped bring additional resources to the facility, including staff and expertise. The last transportation bond included $24 million for multi-modal transportation, and we expect that as much as $9 million will be put into a significant expansion of the International Marine Terminal. It would help the state acquire property to expand the footprint of the IMT and connect the facility to the nearby Pan Am railroad line. Extending the rail line would then allow cargo brought to Portland by ships to be transported by train to the South and Midwest directly from the IMT instead of having to unload containers and then trucking them to another location to be placed on rail cars, as is often the case now.

MB: Can you touch on the significance of Eimskip's decision to relocate its North American headquarters to Portland?

BN: One of the important elements of bringing Eimskip here is that they are bringing their expertise to us as well. They have performance measures by which they can compare Portland to other ports, and if we're slower, the question is, 'Why?' They're able to tell us, 'You need a certain amount of equipment, you need certain procedures, you need a certain level of staffing.' And then we have the data to support those requests. It's made those expenditures easier to fund because these are the folks who are able to describe to the policymakers why it's necessary.

MB: How significant are the intermodal improvements included in the $100 million bond referendum that voters approved in November?

BN: Well, it allows the port authority to plan for expansion of the International Marine Terminal and facilitates its connection with the national rail network. That's going to be critical to Eimskip's success moving forward. Portland is now competing in the international market as a container port. Efficiency is key to keeping costs down. Integration of ship, rail and truck within the single facility is essential.

It also allows the International Marine Terminal to be functionally connected with the Cassidy Point area, which includes the Cianbro marine construction facility at Rickers Wharf and the Sprague Energy bulk freight facility at the Merrill Marine Terminal. It allows for much greater flexibility and efficiency for all of those facilities to be able to function. Although they're different entities and have different interests, they'll be able to function together for both container service and also on special freight moves.

MB: It's another key part of the waterfront's development?

BN: It really is. The idea of rail connections to the International Marine Terminal is something that, intuitively, everybody knew made sense. The rail was there, the freight, the container yard was there, and they just didn't quite connect. It's very gratifying to see them finally come together with funding from the state of Maine and the leadership of the port authority.

MB: Is there any anecdote you might share of how Eimskip's presence at the International Marine Terminal creates opportunities for Maine businesses?

BN: I saw several new cars on the marine terminal's lot and I found out from the port authority that there's a great demand for electric cars in Iceland. So now we're shipping electric cars from the U.S. to Iceland because they have very inexpensive electricity over there. That's just one example I can give you of how folks are going to innovate and find ways to exploit and take advantage of these new connections.

MB: Is there an update with Thompson's Point?

BN: Thompson's Point is moving through their master plan review with the planning board right now. They do intend to have a water taxi dock there so that there is going to be a small waterfront component at their locale, along with their events center, their primary tenant. Bringing in uses that are as exciting as the Circus Conservatory of America, the Red Claws, that's what will make it an exciting place. And I think that the developers' decision to reuse the historic rail buildings only improves the opportunities to create a place down there that people will want to go to.

Read more

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