Proposed Warehouse Pits Portland’s Budding Shipping Industry Against Neighborhood Residents

Jan 30, 2017

A massive refrigerated warehouse proposed for Portland’s waterfront could help make the city’s port a regional and even world player — as ships sail, it’s the closest port to Europe, which could mean a boost in both imports and exports.

But spirited opposition from local neighbors and competitors could scuttle the plan, at least as it has been proposed.

The western gateway to Portland’s peninsula, where the Fore River opens into the bay, has a long industrial history. In the 19th century, the waterfront’s belching gasworks and glassworks kept hundreds of workers employed.

Those factories have long since disappeared, and for years, much of the land was vacant. A decade ago its chief use was as a dump for plowed snow.

But it has come alive in the last four years, ever since the Maine Port Authority convinced an international shipping firm based in Iceland, Eimskip, to make Portland its only U.S. port-of-call.

“So we’re seeing a ship about once every ten days, currently. We’re hoping to get above one a week before too long,” says John Henshaw is the Port Authority’s executive director.

Henshaw has steered more than $25 million in public investment to the port and its International Marine Terminal. Now more cargo every year is being moved between ship and shore by a 210-foot crane, while “reach-stackers” — what look like monstrous mechanical crabs on wheels — grab the containers and shuttle them around the lot.

Mostly, they are full of frozen fish brought from the North Atlantic for processing and distribution in the states. On the way back to Iceland and other ports in northern Europe, cargo ranges from forest products, blueberries and potatoes to dry goods, appliances and electric vehicles, popular in energy-rich Iceland. Some are parked on the lot now, waiting on the next ship out.

“It’s a mix. You can see there’s some classic cars here, there’s an old Cadillac there, a lot of Nissan Leafs, Chevy Volts, a real mix of different types of cars. We also see boats and RVs and had a hearse,” Henshaw says. “Another thing is we see quite a lot of is they make a lot of movies in Iceland these days, so we see entire movie sets coming through here on a pretty regular basis.”

Henshaw estimates about $600 million worth of cargo comes through here every year. And the facility brings the state about $4 million in direct payroll jobs and port services. Further expansion, he says, could cement Eimskip’s future in Maine and add millions more in direct and indirect jobs as Maine producers access new markets abroad and establish new seafood processing operations here.

Americold's proposed cold-storage warehouse on the Portland waterfront.
Credit Canal 5 Studio of Portland

One example being explored is exporting Maine craft beer to Europe, and importing German malt to make that beer happen.

The potential can be seen a couple hundred yards away at places like the Bristol Seafood Co. CEO Peter Handy stands on a catwalk above the shop floor, where stacks of frozen Norwegian haddock wait to be thawed in a 20-foot metal sluiceway.

“Each fish is individually caught alive on a hook. It’s then headed and gutted and flash-frozen within four hours of being caught. It’s so fresh that when we thaw it out, it actually goes through rigor mortis in our plant,” he says.

Before Eimskip set up shop, Handy says he was trucking that Norwegian haddock, and other fish too, up from Massachusetts to another cold-storage warehouse in Portland owned by Americold. So for haddock, the cost of trucking and transfer are considerably reduced.

Back in his office, Handy says he’s bullish on a new Americold proposal to build a 120,000-square-foot cold-storage warehouse right at the port, on a parcel that’s served by an existing rail line. Bristol Seafood would be able to receive nearly all of its whole fish by sea or rail, avoiding the considerably higher expense of truck freight, which also produces more carbon dioxide emissions.

An illustration of Portland in 1876 shows the proposed site of Americold's warehouse.

“It comes off the boat and goes straight into the freezer, and that’s a more elegant solution in terms of handling it. But the bigger deal for us is we get access to that rail spur,” Handy says.

Backers think the whole plan is pretty elegant. Americold puts up construction money, as much as $31 million; pays rent to the Port Authority; and Maine businesses access new markets, all in an historically industrial zone.

That industrial zone happens to abut the same residential district that once housed factory workers, however. Now it’s a jumble of working-class rentals, gentrifying condo units, a handful of stately mansions and subsidized housing with a big complement of recent immigrants.

And then there’s the fact that after winning the project bid, Americold said it would need its warehouse to rise about two stories higher than current zoning rules allow.

So now some city officials are recommending that an entire mile of the waterfront be rezoned to allow buildings as high as 75 feet.

“While the city is potentially bending over backwards to help one company change the rules after winning the bid, you’re also putting millions of dollars in potential property value and dozens of affordable housing units in jeopardy,” says Carol Kelly, one of dozens of neighborhood residents who spoke against the plan at a recent Planning Commission meeting.

Residents say they support waterfront industry, and even the idea of a cold storage warehouse, as long as it doesn’t unduly obscure valuable views and alter the area’s character.

Resident Sonia Roberston says future generations should not have to ask “who let this happen?” as some are asking about two street-widening projects that have proven to be overbuilt.

“Please don’t permit a third project be constructed that’s too big, too out-of-scale and too visually disruptive. Take the time to examine building alternatives so that cold storage works for the waterfront as well as the entire city,” she says.

Americold declined to comment on what Port Authority officials say is its do-or-die demand for the height allowance.

But if the city does acquiesce, that could complicate matters even further: One company that was qualified to bid on the project but did not — Philadelphia-based XTL Inc. — tells Maine Public Radio that if the city lifts the height restriction, the RFP should be reissued to allow everyone a fair shot at the project.

“If they go arbitrarily and permit someone else to go from 45 feet to 68, 70 feet, that is without question an unfair RFP. Without question,” says XTL chairman and CEO Anthony Cerone. “It’s incumbent upon them to level the playing field. So what they should do is to reject all bidders and reissue the RFP. Because if they do not, then the process is favoritism, preferential treatment, discriminatory to whoever else bid and it becomes a corrupt process.”

Henshaw says the RFP sought to find the best-qualified developer, not a specific design, and there are no plans to reissue the RFP.