More than 80 Portland residents signed a letter to the Planning Board opposing a cold storage facility proposed for the West Commercial Street waterfront, claiming it would be too large and should not be considered a marine use as required by zoning.
The Planning Board is considering plans submitted by a development team led by Treadwell Franklin Infrastructure Capital of Yarmouth and international fund manager Amber Infrastructure Group for a 74-foot tall, 107,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse to be built on state-owned land next to the International Marine Terminal.
Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, which operates out of the terminal and was awarded rights from the Maine Port Authority and the Department of Transportation to develop the warehouse with Atlanta-based real estate investment trust Americold, selected the Treadwell/Amber team after Americold pulled out in 2018.
The Planning Board is tentatively scheduled to hold a second workshop Sept. 8, where it will consider the project’s traffic impacts.
The authors of the letter claim that the building would be too large to support marine uses, and that most products stored there would be transported by truck, adding congestion to Commercial Street and increasing carbon emissions.
They point to Americold’s departure as evidence that the market would not support a facility of that size and say there could be better uses that align with the needs of marine industries and local fishermen, who are unlikely to be able to store baitfish at the facility.
“That excessive size would squander working waterfront land critical for rebuilding Maine’s seafood economy and nurturing new maritime opportunities,” said Mark McCain of Summer Street, who wrote the letter with Jo Coyne of Salem Street and Carl Cramer of York Street.
Treadwell Franklin Chair George Campbell said the questions raised in the letter have been considered before.
“The neighbors keep raising questions and bringing in competing data, but that’s part of the public process,” he said. “It costs a lot to build on the waterfront in Portland, and we wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t see that we were able to actually access and serve a marine market.”
Maine Port Authority CEO Jonathan Nass said that the group of mainly West End residents is “trying anything that could derail this project, and it’s apparently because they don’t like the view (of the building).”
Nass called the suggestion that the facility would not constitute a maritime use “absurd.”
“We’re a port, and the reason for building this is because of our Eimskip connection and the fact that their specialty is in freezer logistics,” Nass said Aug. 26.
The 82 signers of the letter include Portland Museum of Art Director Mark Bessire, former City Councilor Karen Geraghty, and former legislative candidate Charles Skold.
“If the goods are not being transported by water, they don’t need to be stored next to the water,” Skold said. “It would be much easier to build an inland facility with truck access right off the highway, and use the existing railway to cart any sea-based product to that inland facility.”
He said his primary concern is the climate impact of the added truck traffic, and the possibility that building the facility would preclude a commuter rail line from being developed along West Commercial.
“We need to think long-term and plan our development in ways that reduce emissions, not add to them,” Skold said.
Nass said that trucking is always part of the equation and is happening already for last-mile transportation. Cold storage at the port, he said, would reduce emissions and costs for Maine companies that now truck their product to Massachusetts, only to have to go back and get it later. He estimated that those extra trips could add $2,000 to the shipping cost.
The letter writers analyzed bill-of-lading data, concluding that from January-June 1,015 refrigerated containers were imported, with Maine companies importing fewer than 1,200 refrigerated pallets, in 52 containers.
“All vessel-transported frozen food would fill less than 1.5 percent of the warehouse, with its annual storage capacity of about 250,000 to 400,000 pallets,” the letter states, with a note that warehouse capacity was calculated based on plan documents showing around 21,000 pallet positions and turnover estimates of 12-20 pallets per position per year, based on statements by Americold and its consultants.
But Nass disputes that analysis and said the opponents’ assumed turnover rate is “widely inflated.”
“I don’t think that range exists anywhere in the industry,” he said.
The Port Authority’s records show that from January-June there were 25 vessel calls and 1,307 refrigerated containers imported or exported, Nass said. At 20 pallets per container that’s about 26,140 refrigerated pallets that have passed through the port over that time, putting the port on track for more than 50,000 refrigerated pallets from existing business this year.
By adding cold storage, he said, the volume is expected to grow because it will reduce costs for importers and exporters based in Maine and elsewhere. The business model includes out-of-state businesses, he said, because more users will lower the costs for all customers.
Nass said the bill-of-lading data is known in the industry for being inaccurate and cannot be relied upon to determine which shipments are by Maine companies. If the product is shipped by a Maine company but its destination is a freezer in Boston, he said, the destination will be listed as Massachusetts. Or if a Maine company is going through an importer based in another state, that importer will be the one listed.
But McCain challenged Nass to provide an account of the actual refrigerated shipments imported or exported by Maine businesses. He said he included five containers to Massachusetts freezers in the original calculations, but that including all listed shipments to Massachusetts freezers would add only 17 containers, or 340 pallets, to their total.
He argued that companies from other states would want to store their products close to their operations rather than in Maine and that some companies would probably still choose to transport their product to warehouses elsewhere if those storage costs are cheaper.
Another letter signer, Bill McFarlane, former chief of psychiatry and director of the Center for Psychiatric Research at Maine Medical Center, said that while most people are in favor of having cold storage at the site, “consistently, plans keep coming up for volume and height that seems excessive, given the market demand and experience so far.”
As for the claim that the market won’t support the capacity, Nass said this is the right time to get into the business. He pointed to a rapid rise in investments in cold storage, in part because of pandemic-influenced shifts in supply chains, as well as long-term trends such as the increased need for refrigerated storage by pharmaceutical and biotech companies, the rising popularity of food delivery services, and the growing popularity of organic foods and farm-to-table supply chains, which also require more cold storage.
Further, he said that because Eimskip is now stopping in Greenland and global shipping company MSC suspended its connection from Boston to the North Atlantic, Portland’s International Marine Terminal has the best route from the U.S. to Greenland and the North Atlantic.
“We really are the way to get to and from Greenland and to and from the North Atlantic,” Nass said.
The opponents’ letter also touched on concerns that the facility would not allow local lobstermen to store baitfish.
Campbell of Treadwell Franklin told the Phoenix in June that U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations prevent storage of unfrozen baitfish in the same space as food items. He said Aug. 27 that whether or not bait would be allowed at the facility and whether freezing services would be provided there will be up to the operator of the facility. He said the development team is in negotiations with potential operators.
Nass urged residents not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” over what he called a small issue compared to the benefits the project would bring the seafood industry by offering storage for frozen finished seafood products.
“If someone is making a lobster bisque for export and it was a frozen product, it would certainly be in here,” he said.
“We have committed to the bait fishermen to work with them,” Nass continued. “We’re happy to help with what might be a more appropriate facility that would handle that product.”
One potential location for such a facility is the city-owned Portland Fish Pier. The Portland Fish Pier Authority is in the process of strategic planning and is exploring what services the pier should provide to support the working waterfront.
Bill Needelman, the city waterfront coordinator, conducted interviews with members of the seafood industry in July. Based on those conversations, he recommended the Fish Pier Authority explore adding shared services including freezing, processing, packaging, trucking, and marketing at the pier.
“I’m going to make sure that I continue to keep that specific recommendation (about freezer services) active as the board considers a host of other issues regarding the fish pier,” Needelman said Aug. 25, although he added there are other considerations.
“We don’t know how much it costs, we don’t know how much space it takes up, we don’t know what other things we couldn’t do if we get into the freezing business,” he said. “But given that fish wants to be cold, and that there’s going to be a refrigerator available to put it in, it certainly is a service that we should explore.”
Freelance writer Jordan Bailey is a former Phoenix staff writer.