Voices of opposition rising to Quonset port proposal

Gov. Lincoln Almond would like nothing better than to see a shipping port built at the former U.S. Naval base at Quonset Point. In terms of economic development, he sees such a project as a home run.

But in recent weeks, others have suggested that the project would be more of a swing – and a miss.

Both Save The Bay and the Conservation Law Foundation have come out against the port, citing concerns for the environment among their chief objections. But perhaps even more disturbing to the governor is the fact that some of the state’s business leaders are questioning whether the port, as discussed thus far, makes sense.

Donald Carcieri, who retired as chief executive officer of Cookson America a year-and-a-half ago, said he is “disturbed by the lack of critical thinking,” regarding the project. Carcieri thinks the port would be too costly and questions its potential for a financial return.

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”A large load center is a huge gob of real estate with a voracious appetite,” Carcieri said. “All it wants is ground to store. I can’t think of anything worse in terms of wear and tear on real estate.”

In a recent meeting with John Swen, Carcieri said he told the director of the Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation; “When you do a business deal, you are never going to have everything in your favor. But you try to have the deck stacked in your favor. This is all stacked against you.”

Almond, along with Quonset Point Partners, the group that would develop the port, and other proponents point to it as an economic generator that would bring thousands of jobs to the Ocean State.

QPP has proposed a large load center that would occupy as many as 600 acres. Such a facility would serve as an entry point for international cargo bound for the Northeast and the Midwest.

In the coming weeks, Almond is expected to unveil details – specifically, the size and the scope of the project – of what he envisions for the port. It is in those details that he will get a sense of the level of support – or lack of support – he can expect from the business community, environmentalists and the public at large.

Almond apparently is in no hurry.

This, despite the fact that two of the world’s largest shipping lines have recommitted to New York-New Jersey harbor. Almond, said John Rooke, a spokesman in the governor’s office, does not feel added pressure to present a formal proposal for the development of the port at Quonset Point.

The governor is being given lots to think about, in terms of the port. While there is consensus regarding the need to capitalize on the opportunity presented by Quonset Point and its location on Narragansett Bay, there is growing sentiment that the developers more specifically answer questions regarding environmental impact, the impact on highways and roads and financing.

With a report from the stakeholders’ group in hand, Almond is meeting with groups on all sides of the issue and expects to unveil his favored plans by the end of June.

Whatever the governor puts forth will be of little interest to two of the world’s largest shippers – Sea-Land Service and Maersk. Those companies – ending more than a year of speculation as to their plans – have decided to remain in the New York-New Jersey harbor. Sea-Land and Maersk were being wooed by several East Coast cities, including Baltimore, Maryland and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Their names emerged during the past year, as possible tenants for a port at Quonset Point. That is now, apparently, out of the question.

But the governor, according to a spokesperson, is not deterred by losing out on Sea-Land and Maersk.

”There are other alternatives out there,” John Rooke said.

Rooke said the long-awaited stakeholders report was not what the governor had been expecting. Instead of submitting a detailed recommendation for port development, the coalition of business and environmental leaders sent the governor a list of which issues they agreed – and did not agree upon.

”The governor is taking the time to decipher what they agree upon,” said Rooke. “He would still very much like to have a decision by the end of June, which was the original plan.”

Among the groups the governor has met with have been representatives of the Town of North Kingstown. Officials in North Kingstown have cooled to the idea of a massive shipping port at Quonset Point, preferring instead a smaller, “omni-port.”

North Kingstown Town Manager Richard Kerbel described an “omni-port” as one that allows for several different kinds of cargo. Quonset Point, he said, is ideal for such a development because of its access to rail lines and warehouses.

”We prefer a no-fill omni-port,” said Kerbel. “An omni-port is more easily permitted and much of the activity could be done now.”

As for the recent meeting between North Kingstown officials and the governor and his staff, Kerbel seemed unsure if it accomplished what he had hoped it would.

”Sometimes people hear what you are saying, but,” Kerbel said. “There was a lot of communication back and forth. We hope he takes the time to study what we left him.”

North Kingstown Town Councilman Robin Porter was among the coalition of town officials to visit the governor at the State House. Porter said the meeting was something less than cordial. When asked to be specific, to describe the governor’s response, Porter, a former state senator, said; “He stiff-armed us.”

To accelerate momentum for the project, a coalition of business leaders joined forces in January to create “GoPort,” a group spearheaded by some of the biggest players in the business and labor communities – including the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce and the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.

At a press conference at the Greater Providence Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Jan. 25, Carol Grant, GoPort’s chairperson and vice president of human resources at Textron, said the group backs a privately financed port. Grant said such a port would allow Rhode Island to tap into “new avenues of revenues.”

There has been talk of such a port creating at least 5,000 jobs and establishing hundreds of millions of dollars in new wages.

But not all of the heavyweights in the business community are lining up behind “GoPort.”

Carcieri said others have expressed concerns about the port.

James Dodge, president and chief executive officer of Providence Energy Corporation, makes it clear that he is not opposed to the construction of a shipping port at Quonset Point. But he is skeptical of the amount of due diligence that has been done in shaping the specifics of such a proposal.

”If the state does want to develop a major job center in that area – and frankly, I think they should – we have done almost no planning for transportation, infrastructure development and financing,” Dodge said.

Dodge raises concerns about the time it will take to secure all of the federal permits necessary to move forward with the development of the port. Such a process, he said, will “lock up” Quonset Point to other potential development opportunities.

”I personally do have concerns about the ability of the developers to permit a project of this scope which is going to cost a lot more money than they are estimating and a lot more time,” Dodge said.

According to Rooke, the governor sees the process as “in the development stage.” The governor, he said, wants Quonset Point to be a linchpin for the state’s economic development efforts.

”It has always been the governor’s intent to have an economic engine at Quonset Point,” said Rooke. “That property is too valuable to the citizens of this state. It isn’t often you get a second chance to develop a site like this.”

Dodge tends to agree. But he wants to hear more about the project’s financing. And more about what infrastructure must be in place to make such a project more viable. And more about the impact the project could have on the environment.

With two of the world’s leading shippers having committed elsewhere, Dodge sees less reason to rush forward – and more reason to study the situation more closely.

”If you are going to do something, do it right,” said Dodge. “If it is going to take time, take the time.”

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