Big year for proposed port

An aerial view of the 86.5-acre site, which is owned by Lanxess, the borough is eyeing for an intermodal transportation hub. –CONTRIBUTED

NAUGATUCK — This year could prove an important one for Mayor N. Warren “Pete” Hess’ vision of an inland port in the borough.

The Department of Transportation said last month it will take steps to see if an intermodal, inland port on the former Uniroyal site could someday become reality. An economic feasibility study should be underway in the next few weeks, said Judd Everhart, DOT spokesman, in a statement.

The DOT would work with the borough, Pan Am Railways, the Department of Community and Economic Development and the Connecticut Port Authority on the project, Everhart said.

Also this year, Hess expects to close a deal with Lanxess, a German chemical company and the successor of Chemtura Corp., for the 86-acre former Uniroyal site that lies along Route 8, just south of downtown.

Hess envisions a rail-to-truck terminal where goods can pass through customs and be loaded to and from trucks and trains. They might head into New York City, or to New England and Canada.

In July, the state Department of Economic and Community Development gave the borough $200,000 for the planning and development of the port. David J. Sakora, head of polymer additives technology at Lanxess, said in July that the company would either donate or offer the land at a reduced rate to aid the borough’s development plans.

Aaron Ellis, public affairs director at the American Association of Port Authorities, said inland ports are becoming an increasingly integral component of the economy.

“We are seeing more inland ports popping up around the country, particularly on the East Coast where population centers are continuing to grow,” he said.

Inland ports take pressure off one or more seaports by taking freight out of the port before it’s processed, sorted and occasionally, before it passes through customs. By reducing congestion at the port — as well as highway congestion created by trucks shipping the cargo away from the port — inland ports provide a valuable service to businesses, Ellis said.

“There’s real cost to businesses to having a truck stuck in traffic,” said Jon Nass, chief executive officer of the Maine Port Authority.

Hess met with Nass and other Maine officials last year to discuss the possibility of connecting the Port of Portland, a sea port, with an eventual port in Naugatuck.

“We really appreciate the mayor’s vision. We think the project they’re proposing is a win-win for Connecticut and for Maine and for the region as a whole,” Nass said. “To have an efficient system you really need to plan regionally and globally.”

Nass said the Port of Portland bears similarities to the project proposed by Hess. It’s a public port built with $60 million in bond money and federal grants on a former brownfield development site.

Hess said the Port of Naugatuck could be public, a public/private partnership or a private operation depending on how things develop. He said he has had discussions with an operating company interested in operating the port.

Nass said a tariff covers the port’s operating costs and that its value to the community and state comes from the economic activity generated.

“We don’t see our role as trying to make money per say or raise tax revenue, we see our role as other things: helping regional businesses be successful and if they’re successful they pay more taxes, they hire more people,” he said.

A similar situation has played out in Front Royal, Va., according to Joe Harris, senior director of media relations at the Virginia Port Authority. Thirty years ago, the state bought 161 acres of Greenfield property there and built an inland rail and trucking port that supports the Norfolk International Terminals, a sea port in Norfolk. Cargo coming into the United States is loaded off container ships and brought by truck or rail to the inland port, from where it’s sent out to Chicago, Detroit and other cities in the Midwest.

“It’s been a true economic engine for that part of the state,” Harris said.

The Virginia Inland Port, which uses only about 30 of the 161 acres, has generated over $900 million in private investments in the surrounding area and created about 9,000 jobs.

“You have the jobs and the investment and you also have the jobs and investment that support that,” he said. “When I started working here 20 years ago, when you went up to VIP, it was very rural. Now there’s a series of gas stations and restaurants that have all grown up to serve various parts of the driving public. I’m confident that wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for VIP.”

An inland port is also a good way to attract large, global companies.

“Companies that want to reach a global market, they set up near a hub where they can make that jump to import and export cargo very quickly,” Harris said.

Nass said many companies use the idea of cost-based geography, or the idea that distance is not as important to businesses as cost. The Port of Portland’s contract with Eimskip, an Icelandic-based container shipping company, not only gives local companies cheaper access to the Scandinavian and European markets, it might actually be raising prices or reducing supply to Connecticut.

“If I’m in Portland and it costs me $800 to drive a container to Naugatuck, but with the same $800 I could go to Norway, under cost-based geography, they’re the same distance,” Nass said, noting the average household income in Norway is more than $100,000. “One of the things we produce in Maine is a lot of food products. You can grow blueberries in Washington County, have them shipped to Kittery, Maine, and made into a jelly. That jar would sell in Connecticut for $2, $3, but it sells in Norway for $7.”

Hess sees the Port of Naugatuck, and others like it, as a future trend.

“The notion of inland ports connected to seaports and using those connections, and freight and trucking, to create opportunities all around the country, that’s the wave of the future,” Hess said.