After six years, there’s not so much as a frozen fish stick on a $7-million site the state purchased for cold storage next to Portland’s International Marine Terminal. The problem? Grand dreams have obscured more sensible options

The Maine Port Authority spent more than two years advancing a private developer’s warehouse proposal – hiring engineers, architects, a public relations firm and more. Some of agency’s outlay, $400,000 so far, bankrolled a campaign to increase the allowable zoning height by 66 percent – crucial for this huge warehouse which could “easily accommodate all food and beverage imports for the New England region,” according to the developer. But upon further reflection, Americold Realty Trust decided the project would be a financial mistake, and walked.

That was two years ago. Now the city is reviewing an even bigger warehouse – with 33% more capacity. The deal includes $8 million of taxpayer support (which the developer says the state would recoup through annual land-lease payments).

With Americold’s warehouse, the Port Authority used contorted logic to claim a perfect fit with maritime storage. This time around no one is even pretending.

The developer says maritime customers would use up to 40% of the warehouse – which sharply overstates demand, based on Maine shipping volume. Regardless, at least 60% of the cargo would never see a ship. Instead, tractor trailers – tens of thousands every year – would join West Commercial Street congestion.

In a rational world, all that ice cream and frozen pizza would be stored in a non-urban warehouse near I-95 and rail access. That’s what a local consortium proposed in tandem with a waterfront warehouse one quarter the size of the current proposal. Chances are that warehouse would be up and running now – with plenty of space for future growth – but the Port Authority rejected the concept twice, in 2015 and 2017. The companion inland facility would have included “value-added services” and functions like nurturing small businesses leasing space in the distribution center.

Supporters of the proposed “Maine International Cold Storage Facility” insist there’s substantial pent-up demand among importers and exporters for cold storage. But most of that demand is illusory.

“The major buyers of frozen seafood are south of Maine, and they will probably not be storing seafood in Portland,” says Angelo Ciocca, president of Nova Seafoods in Portland.

Maine companies import only about 10% of the refrigerated containers offloaded at the terminal. The rest go to out-of-state and Canadian companies. They truck those containers, carrying pallets of frozen product, directly to their own cold storage, or to public cold storage near their facilities.

That helps explain impressive growth at the marine terminal without nearby cold storage, except for an older Americold facility off Forest Avenue, which would underprice any waterfront warehouse for low-value product like bait fish.

As for refrigerated exports, volume is modest compared to imports, plus many Maine exporters operate their own cold storage. Blueberry processors, for instance, have invested heavily in cold storage over the past decade. Their exports, trucked from Down East, are loaded directly onto container ships.

Container-ship docking obviously belongs on Portland’s narrow stretch of deep-water frontage. Not so a warehouse filled primarily with frozen food transported by truck.

“What we need is a smaller freezer to serve mostly the local seafood industry,” said Ciocca. “That would leave land to build processing space for our growing aquaculture businesses, and space for seafood processing and distribution businesses who otherwise must move off the peninsula to grow.”

There’s also a zoning problem. Adding the jumbo warehouse to the marine terminal would cause truck traffic to exceed vessel and rail traffic – triggering a restriction meant to prevent truck-centric developments. The warehouse would be defined as a truck terminal: “a facility primarily for handling and storage of goods transported by tractor trailers.” And truck terminals are prohibited in this waterfront area.

But that restriction is being greeted with a shrug. A market-analysis summary from the developer does not even mention cargo transported by ship. Rather, it stresses the need for a “distribution center,” partly driven by “ecommerce and home delivery,” for frozen foods trucked into Portland’s congested peninsula. Hello Instacart frozen burritos, goodbye responsible waterfront development.

If the Portland Planning Board approves this project, a refrigerated box spanning two acres would soon tower over Portland’s western waterfront. It would be a grand display of Port Authority prowess, but something smaller, linked to an inland facility, would be better for the environment, better for Maine’s economic growth, and better for Portland’s waterfront. Same as five years ago.