After years of study and planning, the state’s three commercial ports – the Port of Providence, the Port of Davisville and Newport – are on the verge of major investments that promise to bring as many as 1,000 new jobs to the state.
The timing of the investments couldn’t be better in terms of the state’s economy, a perspective emphasized during a public discussion at a R.I. Senate Economic Summit held last week at the Quonset Business Park.
The starting point was a report released last month by a joint House and Senate commission created by the General Assembly in 2009 to study the economic potential of the state’s seaports. The report said the ports could generate an additional 1,000 jobs, $70 million in personal income and $127 million in business revenue provided certain steps were taken. That conclusion was supported when companies that conduct business at the ports explained their plans for growth at the ports to the senators.
“One of the things the state should be focused on is capital investments,” said John Holmander, vice president of Electric Boat’s Virginia-class submarine program. Electric Boat, which has 2,300 employees in Rhode Island, “has made some very significant capital investments over the last few years. We’ve put in about $1 billion in improvements since we’ve been here,” he said.
The company is currently planning a new product, the Ohio-class submarine, and relies on water transport to move submarine modules to its other facilities in Groton, Conn., and Newport News, Va.
Holmander mentioned the company’s newest building, “Bay 4,” which will enable Electric Boat to fabricate modules for Virginia-class submarines under one roof, simplifying the process and increasing efficiency. The building cost $50 million and can house about 400 tradespeople. “Once those investments are made they don’t go away,” he said.
Jeff Grybowski, chief administrative officer of Deepwater Wind, told the senators that his company would not have moved its headquarters to Davisville had the state not shown interest in his industry. He expressed the nation’s need for wind-generated power, as well as its economic potential.
“In Europe, offshore wind farms can be 400 to 600 feet tall, and each turbine can weigh 2,000 tons. Most of the major industrial corporations in the world have a role in the offshore wind business. Large manufacturers are all involved in the wind business in Europe. China has decided they should also get involved in offshore wind,” he said.
The company has leased 170 acres of land at Quonset as well as invested $20 million in planning costs for a proposed wind farm 3 miles southeast of Block Island, a 30 megawatt facility consisting of five turbines.
The North Kingstown facility was also in the spotlight Feb. 28, when Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee announced the port is now the seventh-largest auto importer in North America, receiving 150,519 vehicles last year, with another 41,797 received by rail.
At a portside ceremony, Chafee called for expansion of the facility and approval of a line item in his fiscal 2013 budget proposal authorizing the Quonset Development Corporation, which manages the port through the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, to finance $7.5 million in debt for dredging the port. Davisville has not been dredged since the 1970s and has a current depth of 29 feet. The preferred depth is 32 feet. The bonds would be paid for in part by user fees at the port. Planning for the project is almost complete and dredging could begin in October if passed by the Assembly.
The dredging would support other improvements already under way. Davisville is in the middle of $22.3 million worth of investments thanks to a 2010 federal Transportation Investments Generating Economic Recovery grant. Rail and road work at the facility already has been completed, and improvements to terminals 4 and 5 and piers 1 and 2 – including construction of a mobile harbor crane – are well under way.
The Port of Providence, also known as ProvPort, is also on the cusp of major investments. It won a $10.5 million Tiger grant to support the purchase and installation of two high-performance cranes. The grant requires matching funds of $8.9 million to be released, however, something that the city-owned port has not yet raised. In addition, ProvPort is expecting another $1.5 million to improve rail access.
The cranes are to be the first part of a potential $39 million improvement plan to create 550 jobs and $120 million of new economic activity.
Thomas Sullivan, senior vice president of Moran Shipping Agencies Inc., another maritime business with worldwide operations, summarized interest in improving the state’s ports. “The commercial-shipping industry stands ready to assist the promotion of Rhode Island’s ports and work in concert with other users of the bay,” he said. •