The Portland Planning Board is considering a site plan application for a long-anticipated cold storage facility that backers say has become even more important to the Maine economy because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“(The pandemic has) demonstrated the value and need of a cold storage facility here in Maine to support both importing, and more importantly, exporting of seafood and agricultural products that are produced here in Maine,” Portland Economic Development Director Greg Mitchell said.
For some local fishermen, however, who hoped to be able to use the facility to store bait fish, the plan is disappointing.
A development team led by Treadwell Franklin Infrastructure Capital of Yarmouth and international fund manager Amber Infrastructure Group submitted the plans for an approximately 107,000-square-foot refrigerated warehouse to be built on state-owned land along the waterfront west of the International Marine Terminal.
The building would be 350 feet long, 290 feet wide, and 74 feet tall at its peak, with 74,000 square feet of cold storage space, and offices.
Cold storage at the Port of Portland has long been a goal of the Maine Port Authority. With the Maine Department of Transportation, it issued a request for proposals in 2015 for a facility on the city’s waterfront. The only qualified bid came from Atlanta-based realty investment trust Americold, which runs 183 refrigerated warehouses around the world and operates an existing cold storage facility on Read Street.
But 2 1/2 years into the project, after a zoning change was approved to relax height and bulk restrictions for certain waterfront uses including cold storage, Americold pulled out in 2018 for financial reasons.
Americold had partnered with Icelandic shipping company Eimskip, which operates at the IMT and remained committed to the project after Americold backed out. Eimskip issued its own request for proposals for developers last fall and selected the team led by TFIC and Amber.
George Campbell, TFIC chair, on Monday said their project is “well-capitalized and well-researched,” and that they are confident the financial numbers work well. The team has the private capital it needs, he said, and will not be seeking public incentives through Opportunity Zone funding or tax-increment financing.
“Everything we’ve seen so far in our due diligence indicates that we can build this facility, operate it, and serve the core mission of the Port Authority in the state as a private investment,” Campbell said.
The Maine DOT is investing $8 million in the project, according to DOT representative Paul Merrill. An earlier DOT plan to match that with another $8 million raised through New Markets Tax Credits was dropped.
Merrill said the DOT investment would be paid back. When the project closes financially, the team has agreed it will repay the upfront design costs financed by DOT, up to $800,000. After that, Campbell said the state would recover the rest of its investment through lease payments for the nearly 18-acre property over the course of 30 years.
The coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, has created more demand for cold storage.
“There are upsides and downsides in the pandemic,” Campbell said. “The upside is, we know cold storage is more and more important.”
When the pandemic hit, food products headed to restaurants that closed suddenly were not in the same supply chains as grocery stores that were being flooded with customers. Campbell said more cold storage space could have helped correct that imbalance.
Mitchell, the city economic development director, said activity at the port has increased in the past 60 days.
“The disruption in the trucking industry with the pandemic in the supply chains has demonstrated the need for transport via the water,” he said. “So that linkage to Maine is going to serve us really well going forward.”
Now the development team is in the process of qualifying operators who could market and operate the facility and is preparing for a competitive procurement process.
“We have several very qualified operators that are pursuing us on the project,” Campbell said. “We’re feeling that the market makes our project 100 percent compliant with the zoning ordinance, which says that it has to be a marine-related use.”
Fishermen out in the cold
Fishermen on the Portland waterfront, who supported the zone change necessary to build the project, had expected that under the original Americold plans they would be able to use the facility to store bait fish.
But lobster fisherman Bill Coppersmith said June 26 that the current plans won’t allow that.
While they would accept already frozen, packaged food-grade bait shipped from other countries that some fishermen could use, he said, “the most reasonably priced bait is caught right here.” This type of bait is now stored at the Americold facility on Read Street.
Campbell said the development team has met with the fishermen, as have representatives of the Maine Port Authority.
“They’ve been really good friends of the project,” Campbell said. “We understand their needs for a place to store locally caught bait and we’ve told them that we’re really eager to work with them on any city-led effort to create such a space. But unfortunately, the FDA regulations prohibit storage in a space with concurrently stored food items.”
He said while those regulations prevent them from allowing bait inside their proposed warehouse, there are other efforts underway to create separate cold storage space on the waterfront.
Mitchell said the issue is that unfrozen bait fish cannot be stored with food and that the developers’ plans do not include a separate area to freeze the fish. He said it is his understanding that bait that is already frozen could be stored in the facility.
Mitchell said the city has been talking over the years with fishermen about the need for bait storage.
“We’ve always been exploring options, possibly at the (city-owned) fish pier to see how we might be able to address the needs of the lobster industry,” he said. “There’s no specific alternative proposal that I’m aware of at this time, but there’s continued ongoing discussions with how we can use existing facilities, existing property, to meet our marine industry demands.”
Planning Board concerns
The Planning Board in the first workshop for the project on June 23 discussed building and site design, and conformance to zoning requirements.
Concerns were raised about the amount of impervious, paved surface on the property. Planning staff and board members questioned the need for an access road circling the building, 12 truck-sized parking spaces, and a 108-foot wide driveway, which would require a waiver. Board members also asked for more vegetation in the landscape design, particularly where the property fronts the Fore River.
A second workshop, not yet scheduled, will deal with traffic impacts.
In addition to products coming from the adjacent International Marine Terminal, products will also be transported to and from the facility by truck. Darrin Stairs of project consultant Woodard & Curran said the expectation is that 70 trucks a day would come to the facility. About 75 percent of those, he said, would be expected between 6 a.m. and noon.
This traffic would be offset by a reduction in truck traffic from the IMT to cold storage elsewhere, Stairs said.