AUGUSTA, Maine — The Maine Department of Transportation is preparing to hire a consultant to help the state develop a controversial container port planned for Sears Island in Penobscot Bay.
The DOT plans to spend up to $100,000 on a professional consultant that will help create a marketing package likely to attract would-be developers for the long-planned shipping port.
“This is probably the only container port we are going to be developing for a while so we want to make sure we have somebody who understands the market,” David Cole, Maine’s transportation commissioner, said Tuesday.
In January, the Legislature’s Transportation Committee approved an executive order from Gov. John Baldacci that divided Sears Island into two parts: 330 acres for a new port and 601 acres that will be protected from development with a conservation easement.
The proposal has received mixed reviews from environmentalists who have fought for years to preserve the island and those who argue a port will create much-needed jobs while benefiting the regional economy.
On Tuesday, Cole told Transportation Committee members that the department and the Maine Port Authority plan to begin advertising for a consultant by March 13 with a selection made by late April.
The consultant will create a marketing strategy for the port, identify potential developers as well as draft and distribute a detailed prospectus of the project. That prospectus will include: market opportunities, regional port capacity, transportation infrastructure that will be connected to the port and descriptions of the permitting process.
Money for the consultant already is included in the state’s budget, officials said.
Cole said afterward that the state wants to ensure that any marketing plan that goes out to potential developers encompasses all of the regional assets, such as existing rail infrastructure and Bangor International Airport’s status as a “Free Trade Zone” to encourage imports.
The consultant would also be expected to help the DOT and the Port Authority choose a developer but would be prohibited from working on behalf of the developer that eventually is selected.
“We want somebody who works with ports around the world to help us,” Rob Elder, director of DOT’s Office of Freight Transportation, told lawmakers.
Sears Island has been the focus of various development attempts over the decades, ranging from a nuclear power plant to an oil refinery. The current proposal to divide the island was developed by a 15-member working group that included several environmental and conservation groups.
But the compromise remains immensely controversial among those opposed to any development on the island.
Harlan McLaughlin, a member of the group Fair Play for Sears Island, said he was surprised to hear about the consultant on Tuesday. McLaughlin, who accused the Baldacci administration of “engineering the outcome” of the working group, has filed one of three lawsuits challenging the legality of the compromise to divide the island.
“It’s amazing how quickly it happened,” McLaughlin said with a laugh. “The ink is not even dry and they are already marketing it.”
When asked by a lawmaker Tuesday about the legal challenges, Cole responded that the state’s attorneys believe the lawsuits are without merit and that they plan to “take appropriate action to get them dismissed.”