New cargo service a sign of port’s rebirth

After years of relatively flat performance, New Hampshire’s only public working port is finally experiencing a growth spurt.

For the past several months, a small container cargo ship, the Simone J, has been docking at the State Pier to test the potential of establishing regular service between Portsmouth and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Northeast Marine Development LLC, based in Florida, began the cargo service last summer after approval by the Pease Development Authority, which oversees the port.

To PDA Executive Director Dick Green, the enterprise represents a step forward for the pier.

“There is a major opportunity for the businesses in New Hampshire as well as the region to use the Port of New Hampshire, as opposed to having their goods come through New York or Boston,” said Green, adding that he’s optimistic that the container cargo business will experience steady growth.

While conceding that the container cargo business is in a start-up phase, Geno Marconi, executive director of the PDA’s Division of Ports and Harbors, agreed that the container operation has the potential to increase.

At the same time, Marconi pointed out that fluctuating business conditions make it difficult to predict how often the ship will arrive.

“We’ve been scheduling the ship every Sunday,” he said. “However, it’s like any business, so the past couple of Sundays there have been no arrivals. However, we believe that the volume of cargo is going to come up again and precipitate more frequent calls.”

Right now, Marconi said, the vessel arrives at the port filled mostly with empty containers awaiting customers that choose to ship goods out of Portsmouth Harbor.

“As time went on and word got out that the service was available, there were a number of exports,” Marconi said. “I’m happy to say that some of those exports were forest products from the North Country.”

Marconi said that regional shippers appreciate the container service because it saves them the extra cost of trucking goods over the roads to larger ports on the East Coast. Currently, he said, there are no imports arriving from the Port of Halifax, but the operation is still in its infancy.

“Since 1990, we’ve been trying to get this going,” he said. “You don’t just flip a switch on and have all the electricity and all the water flowing at once. We’re pretty confident that this is a good project and has all the earmarks of working out here for us.”

The operation has already created new jobs at the port — two full-time employees in the office and, when a vessel arrives, 18 positions for longshoremen to handle docking and cargo unloading operations. Marconi predicted that an increase in business will ultimately result in the hiring of more full-time workers.

For the past few decades, the most visible sign of commerce at the State Pier has been the growing and shrinking mountain of scrap metal, exported to foreign countries, melted down and recycled. The most reliable source of revenue for the state-owned facility, it also has been the target of criticism from residential neighbors who consider it an eyesore.

Still, the scrap pile operation is likely to remain on a section of the eight-acre site near the Piscataqua River, at least for the time being. The PDA is negotiating a new one-year contract with Grimmel Industries, which has leased the land since 2001. As of now, a short-term agreement with the PDA extends its current deal three months into the new year.

Highway salt storage has also become a stable revenue source for the state at the port as well. International Salt Company, based in Pennsylvania, rents another section of land near the waterfront.

Marconi said that he is awaiting an audit report on port finances, so he couldn’t comment specifically on the impact on revenues of the increased activity at the facility. But he said that he is expecting some positive news.

“By having another tenant in here and increasing the number of vessel calls and increasing the volume of cargo across the dock, on top of our present cargoes, we would anticipate an increase in revenues,” he said.

Marconi pointed out that the State Port derives its revenues mainly from three sources — docking fees, wharfage fees, assessed for the loading and unloading of ships, and rent charged for the storage of cargo on site.

Donald Coker, chairman of the Piscataqua Maritime Commission, praised both Northeast Marine Development and Grimmel as good port tenants that work with the city.

“The container shipping operation has been very supportive of being in this community,” Coker said, adding, “they were a financial contributor to this past summer’s tall ships event, where we had four ships in the port at one time.”

Coker also noted that Grimmel has continued to contribute financially to the work of the commission.

Further expansion of the State Pier is in the works. Appledore Engineering, based in Portsmouth is in the process of designing a 125-foot extension of the main pier, in order to accommodate larger vessels. PDA Executive Director Dick Green said that the Legislature’s Capital Budget Oversight Committee approved $712,000 for that phase of the project.

“Once that design is done, we’ll go back to the committee, and if they authorize us to go to bid, then we will go to bid,” he said.

The pier extension is expected to cost around $11 million dollars to complete, and Green said that the financing is in place. Green predicted that construction on the pier expansion will begin either late in 2008 or early in 2009.

“The state hasn’t borrowed the money yet because they won’t borrow it until they need it, but the authorization is there,” he said.

That should translate ultimately into more activity and revenues for the port, according to Port Director Marconi, who stressed the value of the facility to Portsmouth and the Seacoast as a whole.

“We are the only public access, general cargo, general use deep water facility in the state. We are the only open door.”