SEARSPORT, Maine — At the Sprague Energy terminal in Searsport, there’s a cavernous room fit for a football stadium.
Actually, there are two such rooms, and both are empty.
Sprague built the two hulking structures — a combined 90,000 square feet — in 2005. For two years, they brimmed with wood products being readied to send overseas through Sprague’s deep-water port. Then in 2007, the economy soured and the flow of forest products from Maine across the oceans dried up.
“This is a $4 million investment, just sitting here idle,” said Duane Seekins, who manages Sprague’s operation in Searsport, which along with facilities in Eastport and Portland makes up Maine’s port trio.
The ports move less product than either trains or trucks, but without them some of Maine’s largest industries — from paper to the ever-thirsty energy sector — couldn’t operate. Despite those empty warehouses, Seekins said the port is performing well, and all you’ve got to do to believe it is step outside.
Humongous white cylinders — stacked like paper towel rolls for the gods — and dozens of 165-foot propeller blades will become a wind farm in Vermont. Mountains of road salt from Canada and Egypt come to Searsport in ships and get distributed all over Maine and beyond, currently at a pace of about 130 truckloads a day.
Every week, 20 or 30 rail cars filled with clay slurry from Brazil roll out to the Irving paper mill in St. John, New Brunswick. Through a system of pipes and pumps that connect acres of massive round tanks flow numerous petroleum and chemical products that ride the rails or roads to paper mills and fuel dealers.
Empty warehouses or not, Sprague’s terminal in Searsport is a busy place. That’s the way it’s been for 105 years since its days as a coal terminal and, during World War II, a fuel farm. Whatever peaks and lulls there are in the port’s business correct themselves over time, said Jim Therriault, Sprague’s vice president of marketing and materials handling.
“Overall, it tends to hold fairly steady,” said Therriault. “We’ve definitely seen a fairly large drop-off on the pulp and paper side. On the heavy lift side there’s been an increase.”
Therriault said the bad economy and low value of the dollar have pushed the forest products industry to seek customers within the United States, meaning their products are moving on trucks and trains. Whether the trend will reverse itself remains to be seen.
On the other hand, said Therriault, events are unfolding on a national scale that could send more products to and from Maine across the water. One factor is the widening of the Panama Canal, which will allow much larger ships through. Therriault said that will send smaller ships to ports along the East Coast, where their cargo will be distributed on roads, rails and cargo. It’s a concept known as coast-wise shipping. In Maine, the port most likely to benefit is the International Marine Terminal in Portland, which is the best-suited of Maine’s three ports to handle goods that are transported in containers.
“There’s a role for Maine to play in all of that,” said Therriault. “The trend is for the development of coast-wise shipping and more marine highways.”
With some recent projects, the state has been helping the ports expand their capabilities. In 2009, $4.5 million in state bond proceeds along with some stimulus dollars funded the construction of a bulk cargo handling system in Eastport. When finished later this year, it will allow the passage of wood chips and pellets for a hungry market in Asia. That’s on top of a record year for Eastport in 2010, according to Eastport Port Authority director Christopher Gardner.
A major portion of the record-breaking tally was 400,000 tons of wood pulp shipped through the port from the paper mill in Baileyville to buyers in Asia. Another growing market is cows that are being shipped from numerous U.S. states to predominantly Turkey and Russia. Early indications in 2011, according to Gardner, are that 2010’s record will fall by the time summer hits.
“In January we saw seven different vessels come in here,” said Gardner. “For one month, that’s amazing. I don’t think we did more than 20 vessels last year and that was a record year.”
On Gardner’s long-term wish list is access to railroad service, which would require the rehabilitation or rebuilding of nearly 30 miles of tracks.
“It would be a big investment, but Eastport is the deepest natural seaport in the United States, with no dredging,” he said. “We’re one of the best port assets in the state of Maine. If we can garner that rail connection or at least bring it close to the nearby town of Perry, there’s a lot of markets out there to be captured.”
Therriault, of Sprague Energy, agreed. In addition to its operations at Mack Point in Searsport, Sprague also operates the former Merrill’s Terminal in Portland and a tank complex in South Portland. All three facilities would benefit from better rail service.
“Our railroads are very old,” he said. “That’s a big challenge for Maine. We have heavy-lift projects that come along that we’d love to move by rails. … An older rail infrastructure doesn’t help, and going by road means the drivers have to go through a lot of congested, urban areas.”
To bolster the port system, the state also is collecting bids for the construction of a mobile crane system at Searsport, which would help handle that port’s growing business in moving very large and heavy items, such as windmill parts and electrical machinery. In Portland, the state is moving forward with major upgrades to the International Marine Terminal, including warehouse upgrades and the construction of a new pier.
John Henshaw is the executive director of the Maine Port Authority, a state agency that markets Maine’s ports to shippers, importers and exporters.
“We see these as opportunities for us to invest in the ports so they’ll be ready when the business is generated to use them,” he said. “The ports are doing a good job of marketing themselves, but we could always do better. We have huge export and import potential.”