One bright spot in Washington County’s economic development picture is the success of the deep-water port at Eastport. In 2008, the port set another record for cargo, handling 376,873 metric tons, up 8,000 tons over 2007. In fact, the port has seen new record cargo amounts in seven of the last eight years.
Though the port’s success has not ushered in a new era of prosperity in the region, it is important to recognize the facility’s value. A port whose existence is more than justified by its activity will remain viable, and in fact be expanded. This transportation infrastructure will continue to be marketed, and may support or even draw new business to the area.
Ten years ago, the port facility was moved from a location adjacent to the downtown to a sprawling industrial site at Estes Head, allowing for the construction of warehouses and other supporting infrastructure. The cargo growth began shortly after the new facility was completed.
Most of the cargo is outbound — pulp from the Domtar plant in Baileyville, being shipped to papermaking facilities in Europe and Asia. It would be better if the port saw finished products such as paper being loaded on those ships, but as Port Director Christopher Gardner points out, the pulp is a value-added product. “It’s not like we’re shipping raw material,” he said.
The port is operated by the stand-alone port authority, a quasi-municipal entity, and it does not rely on tax money, Mr. Gardner said. If public money were to be dedicated to the port, restoring a rail link from Baileyville and Calais would top the wish list. Sadly, the rail line to Eastport was torn up in the mid-1980s, just as the port was being developed, Mr. Gardner said.
“They’ve never existed at the same time in Washington County,” he said, so one can only speculate how much more successful the port would be with a rail link. “Rail is a great way to move freight,” he added, especially in the era of high fuel costs.
Port officials want to see diversified cargo being shipped in and out, but even at its current level of activity, the port is an economic engine. When ships are loading, as many as 50 longshoremen are at work, Federal Marine Terminals reported. Local independent truckers and harbor pilots also see work.
And Mr. Gardner is working to involve the port in what may be a burgeoning new industry — tidal power.
Along with deep-water facilities in Portland and Searsport, the Port of Eastport provides a vital conduit for commerce between Maine and global markets. Mr. Gardner is correct when he argues for not only acknowledging the facility’s steady growth, but also for “investing in what already is paying dividends.”