Attention turns to Portland's western waterfront

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PORTLAND — “Huge.” “Transformative.” “A game-changer.”

Those are words officials used in reacting to the announcement last week that an Icelandic container shipping company, Eimskip, will begin sailing out of the International Marine Terminal, near the Casco Bay Bridge.

The company will move its North American headquarters from Norfolk, Va., to Portland and has signed a contract to begin operations in March. Eimskip vessels will make port at the terminal every 14 days, according to a press release.

The new service will give Maine businesses direct import and export access to markets in eastern Canada and Europe. Portland has not been home to Europe-bound container ships since 1980, and has not had container shipping service of any kind since April 2012,  when a coastal fleet, American Feeder Lines, went out of business.

Eimskip’s move is also expected to create jobs and may foster growth in shipping-related businesses such as trucking, warehousing and rail service along the nearby tracks of Pan Am Railways.

The news was lauded at a press conference with Mayor Michael Brennan and Maine Port Authority Executive Director John Henshaw. Officials including Gov. Paul LePage and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, issued statements praising Eimskip’s move.

“There’s any number of different sound bites you can apply to this situation,” Brennan said. “You can call it transformative, you can call this a game-changer, you can call it visionary.”

But besides re-establishing the city as an international port for container goods, Eimskip’s decision signals a potential rebirth for the blighted, often-overlooked western end of the downtown waterfront.

The eastern end of Commercial Street is the site of restaurants, tourist shops and the Ocean Gateway marine passenger terminal, where cruise ships regularly dock and where a renewed ferry service to Nova Scotia may soon berth.

Nearby is the Maine State Pier and the terminal of Casco Bay Lines, now undergoing a $3 million renovation. In addition, an undisclosed Maine business is in talks with the city to lease space on the pier.

But a mile down the street, the tourists thin out and the horns of approaching ferries are faint.

And until recently, the International Marine Terminal was a dilapidated structure that attracted little shipping. Although once home to Portland’s Nova Scotia-bound ferries, the terminal’s length and aging infrastructure made it difficult to handle container vessels.

In 2009, the Maine Port Authority took over terminal operations from the city under a long-term lease. With $8 million in federal and state funds, the port authority then began a major renovation of the terminal.

The renovation was a major reason for Eimskip’s decision to move to Portland, the company’s senior manager, Larus Isfeld, said last week.

But the western waterfront is attracting other marine businesses, too. Just ask Phineas Sprague Jr., owner and president of Portland Yacht Services.

Sprague announced last summer that his company planned to open a new boat yard at 40 West Commercial St., just west of the Casco Bay Bridge.

To be dubbed Canal Landing, the area is now overgrown with brush. Sprague has an agreement to purchase 14 acres of the land from the Pan Am railway, whose tracks are now idle, and plans to lease another two acres from the natural gas company Unitil.

But all that may change when Pan Am brings expected rail service to handle freight arriving or departing on Eimskip ships.

Sprague said he’s prepared to scale down his plans in order to leave room for new rail operations. At the same time, he’s continuing to seek the final permits he needs to build the yard as originally planned.

“As of last October, the highest and best use of (the land) was my boat yard,” he said. “Three or four months later, we have a major new carrier here and the whole complexion has changed. I feel like a Yo-Yo.”

But he said restoring container shipping to Portland holds benefits that outweigh his own business goals.

“My boat yard pales in comparison to the opportunity we have now (with Eimskip) in Portland,” he said.

“The opportunity for Portland is absolutely huge. … This can be a game-changer for the port and for Maine. And because of our location on the map and our legacy railroad system, (container shipping) can be something that someone else can’t tear away from us.”

And while the eastern stretch of Portland’s waterfront will always have its ferries, tourists and restaurants, Sprague said a new frontier may lie west.

“Many of the old piers were designed for a different era,” he said. “If you’re going to create a vibrant new marine environment, you have to find a new place to do it.”

Whit Richardson of the Bangor Daily News contributed to this report.

William Hall can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @hallwilliam4.