Pease Trade Center seeks to modernize port

Officials in charge of operating the Port of New Hampshire say the facility’s future may one day include high-speed commuter ferries to Boston, tall ship regattas, small cruise vessels and a bustling roll on/roll off container trade, and to take the first step toward that vision lawmakers will have to appropriate $1.6 million over the next four years to get the ball rolling.

Among the improvements considered would involve spending $12 million in port improvement funds to expand the pier to 125 feet for bigger ships, beef up pilings, modernize cargo facilities and add a needed crane or two. Ripples from those improvements might help the whole Seacoast economy, proponents of the effort say.

Among those pushing for modernizing the port is Pease Development Authority Director Dick Green, whose agency oversees the port. He told state lawmakers last month that spending $400,000 a year through 2011 would buy time to win a sector of the market that better suits a major tourist attraction. Today, a pair of bulk shippers store huge piles of salt and scrap metal at the docks. Nobody calls that the highest use of waterfront industrial land in a state with a short coast and a small port.

Pease is paying the state $650,000 a year to retire a $20 million bond to turn the former Pease Air Force Base into the Pease International Tradeport. Green told lawmakers the PDA would be willing to pay back an extra $400,000 a year for four years to ease the short-term crunch of a $1.6 million appropriation.

The Port of New Hampshire has no borrowing authority of its own, he said, and Pease has to plow all of its $2 million annual surplus back into airport operations in case the Air Force needs it again.

“It’ll take us four years to diversify our customer base,” Green said. “Repaying our debt is an allowable expense under federal rules.”

The money he seeks would boost cash flow and pay for a new marketing director, who would attempt to recruit high-end customers to the port.

“I don’t think that pile of scrap metal exactly captures the charm and history of the city of Portsmouth,” said Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, chair of the House Finance Committee. “But spending $800,000 in general funds over the next two years has to be weighed against any other laudable needs before us.”

Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand said the city has received the same statutory $30,000 in lieu of taxes from the port for three decades. He’d like more when the port can afford it.

“I can see thousands of tourists shopping in all the new boutiques and restaurants along the river,” the mayor said. “They’d be spending all those additional dollars with little drain on our infrastructure.”

Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare, applauded Green for trying to do more with a wonderful resource.

“Sometimes I’m embarrassed to see the state’s name associated with it,” he added. “The problem I see is they don’t want to pay the state back for the $1.6 million. And they don’t have a plan for what they want to do. We’d need that to justify spending the money.”

Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, chaired a 15-member ad hoc committee that last year brainstormed about the waterfront. She cautioned against hoping for too much too soon. Portsmouth Harbor is small compared with those of Portland, Maine, and Boston. The channel is twisting and narrow. The tide rips through the river when it drains and refills the whole Great Bay estuary. That makes the docks inaccessible except at slack tide. Ships have to wait out by the Isle of Shoals for the moment to enter.

“How do you create maximum revenue?” Clark said. “Will the demand justify the upgrade? Does the port even have to make money? If you had a high-speed ferry, where would the commuters park? Who should run it — the city, Pease or the state? There’s no perfect solution. I’d just suggest realistic expectations.”

Art Nickless chairs the Pease board of directors and knows the project is a political gamble.

“If we do this, our feet will be held to the fire in Concord,” Nickless said. “They don’t care what material is stored there as long as there is revenue.”

Joel Carp owns a condo across the street from the two piles on the wharf. Three years ago a gale covered his 54-unit neighborhood in orange dust.

“Both piles are an abomination,” Carp said. “We can never open our windows. Gloucester (in Massachusetts) started cruise ships last year, and we’re light years ahead of them in our facilities. If they can do it, we can.”

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