June 24, 2018
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It’s time to renew Penobscot port strategy

By Michael W. Aube, Special to the BDN

In its heyday, the Bangor-Searsport connection provided jobs and business opportunities to Maine’s agricultural and wood products assets — jobs like those with the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad ice reefer, which transferred potatoes onto the SS Pioneer Dale docked in Searsport.

According to “Maine Line,” Bangor and Aroostook Railroad’s magazine, (v.7 #5) “Ice reefers were specially designed railroad cars that were cooled with ice during the summer to prevent potatoes from spoiling during the summer shipping season. Icing stations were located in Houlton, Presque Isle and Caribou. During the winter the cars were heated with special stoves to protect produce from freezing.”

As President Obama and Congress try to identify ways to improve economic opportunity and expand manufacturing in our nation, and as Maine continues to improve its perception as a business-friendly state, one needs to look no further than going back to our “transportation” roots as assets worthy of renewal.

According to Maine Department of Transportation website, Maine continues to adhere to the “Three-Port Strategy that was first implemented in the late 1970s to preserve the coast of Maine’s resources while at the same time encouraging needed industrial port development.”

This strategy promotes cargo port development of Maine’s three ports of Eastport, Searsport and Portland. According to MDOT, the ports have shown steady, consistent growth. For the period 1997 to 2007, the average annual tonnage figures are Portland at 718,542 tons or 51 percent of the total; Searsport at 458,330 tons or 30 percent; and Eastport at 287,186 tons or 19 percent for a total of 1,464,058 tons a year.

The Bangor region’s economic base was always driven by economic opportunities resulting from navigable waters. The Penobscot River and Maine’s largest bay, Penobscot Bay, provide a real competitive advantage for the export of manufactured or value-added products and for the import of necessary raw materials for production. The assets of the Penobscot River, Bucksport, Searsport and the Bangor International Airport provide a great opportunity. And the higher education institutions of University of Maine and Maine Maritime Academy in the region further advance the research and development of export opportunities.

Environmentally responsible technologies and use of these assets can advance economic growth for all of eastern Maine. This growth can manifest itself through the asset of its deep-water ship access and it rail connection allowing double stacked rail cars to travel unabated from Searsport to Chicago and Montreal.

In addition, the Bangor international Airport provides quality passenger and cargo air service. Linked to water port development and rail and surface highways, the eastern Maine transportation system can strengthen investment and jobs in this region again.

In the coming months, the Action Committee of 50 and Mobilize Eastern Maine will be organizing efforts to design, develop and implement a collaborative network of stakeholders and institutions to advance this port strategy.

If advanced, the Eastern Maine port strategy, coupled with the connectivity of the Eastport opportunity, will increase economic development and job opportunities through transportation, warehousing and distribution services. If we want to capture this opportunity, the region and its assets must be very diligent, aggressive and creative in securing new business and economic development opportunities that directly benefit the region. This strategy would put Maine in the future global transportation network.

Not developing this strategy would severely handicap Maine’s participation in the next wave of economic growth. It’s a risk we can’t afford to take.

Michael W. Aube is president of Eastern Maine Development Corporation in Bangor. He is a past commissioner of Maine’s Department of Economic and Community Development and former state director of Maine USDA Rural Development.

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