Moving the port will cost $600 million, take 20 years, and leave broken promises in its wake 

It was, like the Euclid Corridor before and the Medical Mart after, the Plan to Save Cleveland: In 2004, the city adopted a grandiose strategy to finally make use of the valuable yet murky shoreline that lies to the north. It was the culmination of a 32-month process, the city boasted, that brought 5,000 people to more than 200 public meetings.

But less than four years later, the plan is clinging to life, gasping for air like a three-eyed walleye on that underutilized shore. There's no West Shoreway boulevard. No lakeside golf course. No picnic tables. The only thing left is a hyped-up website of busted dreams.

Yet one piece floats on: the relocation of Cleveland's port. This 130-acre site, nestled between Browns Stadium and the confluence of the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie, is the industrial space where behemoth ships pull into docks, toting steel, ore, and other cargo — remnants of a long-forgotten boom.

But with the help of glossy promises from a glossy businessman — and with almost none of the public input about which leaders once boasted — moving the port 60 blocks east has quietly become the Amended Plan to Save Cleveland. If they can just get the port to East 55th Street, port and city leaders say, it will suddenly generate 50,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in investments, and transform the port into a shipping powerhouse.

The plan, in typical Cleveland fashion, is long on talk and short on . . well, everything else. The only sure things: It will take a long time, cost a lot of money, and do a lot of good for local developers — especially, of course, the former chairman of the port's board.

Behold, a lakeside look into a murky (and expensive) future.

Cleveland, the International Gateway!
What the port's saying: If you've ever spent an afternoon on the lake, you've seen them: colossal vessels, forging their way toward the mouth of the Cuyahoga. Those ships carry, for the most part, heavy machinery and bulk products like iron ore and steel — leftovers from the previous century. But moving the port will help change that, says Adam Wasserman, the polished salesman who moved from England last year for the $283,000 job of port CEO.

Moving the port east, Wasserman says, will give it the space to attract more container shipments — the large metal boxes that move 90 percent of the world's smaller cargo. That will pave the way for a new industrial district on the lakefront, with easy access to both rail lines and highways.

This isn't a modest shift. It would change the entire nature of the port. But both Wasserman and his vice president, Steve Pfeiffer, tout Cleveland as a place tailor-made to attract container shipping. "The ports of New York and Montreal will reach capacity in six to nine years," explains Pfeiffer. "They won't be able to handle the projected growth the shipping industry is seeing with container shipments."

In other words, Cleveland could become the prime destination for container ships that move from the Atlantic Ocean, down the St. Lawrence Seaway, and into the Great Lakes. And the St. Lawrence has room for more traffic, Wasserman explains.

"We could be the poster child for transportation into the Great Lakes," he says. "Cleveland can become an international gateway."

What's the port smoking? As dreamy as it may sound, Wasserman's idea — the notion of making Cleveland a competitive container-ship hub — does have roots in reality. As gas prices rise, container shipping will become more efficient, says Richard Stewart, professor at the Great Lakes Maritime Research Institute in Duluth, Minnesota. "There is also an advantage of greening your supply line," says Stewart. "Ships pollute far less and consume less fuel."

But for Cleveland, it won't be so simple. For proof of that, Wasserman need only look at the very study his board commissioned.

In 2006, the port paid $75,000 to Martin Associates, a consulting firm that advises large ports like Oakland and Seattle, to assess the potential for attracting container ships to Cleveland. When they finished, the consultants issued Cleveland a stern caution.

Cleveland's port is a nonplayer in the container shipping market, which is dominated in the United States by oceanside ports like New York and Seattle — ports that won't simply let Cleveland cut into their business. And there's a reason the St. Lawrence Seaway has room for more ships: It's open only nine months of the year, which makes it difficult to attract a steady carrier business. Plus, to get to Cleveland, containers from giant oceangoing ships would have to be transferred to smaller ships that can maneuver through the seaway and into the waters of Lake Erie — an endeavor that costs precious time and money. And even if the Seaway can handle more ships in the future — thanks to global warming, experts believe it just might — Canadian ports perched along its shores may compete aggressively to steer more ships their way, the consultants warn.

Then there are those pesky rail companies, which, like those pesky Canadians, will keep competing for cargo. In fact, just last week, rail-transport power CSX announced plans to spend $190 million to improve Ohio rail lines and create two additional freight terminals — meaning more competition for Cleveland's already featherweight port. The railroads are preparing for a cargo cage match to see who controls the shipment of goods into the heartland of America. They want to carry the containers as long as possible.

All of which leaves even the most hopeful businessmen feeling cautious.

"It's not automatic," says Doc Mahoney, vice president of Cleveland-based World Shipping Inc. "It will require a great deal of time, money, and commitment, and marketing. Providing such services will be quite costly."

Two Jobs for Everyone!
What the port's saying: When selling an idea to Cleveland, there's one sure way to win politicians' support: Promise lots and lots of jobs. Wasserman's figured this out. So among the promises, along with $2.5 billion in investments in the area around East 55th, is that of 50,000 new jobs. In a town starved for work, the mere mention of new jobs has the succulent sizzle of a 12-ounce sirloin.

What's the port smoking? There is no one more creative than civic leaders adding up the jobs their projects will spawn. The Gateway District promised 27,000 new jobs, most of which never came. To get support for its redevelopment, University Circle vows 30,000. The grand Euclid Corridor, the city assures skeptics, will rake in 9,000 more. Throw in Steelyard Commons' 1,800 new jobs, and it's a wonder how we'll ever fill them.

Given the city's history of pledging work that never comes, are Clevelanders supposed to believe that simply moving the port will yield a Browns-sellout worth of jobs?

No. It turns out, they're not.

When pressed, a port spokeswoman admits those 50,000 don't depend on moving the port. "The 50,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in investments is not totally related to port relocation," Marianne Trimm explains in an e-mail. The numbers, she says, actually have to do with changes the port could make without moving — "port development financing in the technology and health-care industries, among others, as well as port expansion and the industrial growth spurred by waterborne shipping."

Still, 50,000 jobs would be welcome — however they came. But they'd have to actually come.

"That's a crock of shit," says Tim Poole, manager of Whiskey Island, a place familiar with port proclamations. "All the move is going to do is make a mess of the waterfront. It's just going to be a big pile of rock. There's absolutely nothing for people to gain."

Show Me the Money
What the port's saying: Moving the port is a steal. That's basically Wasserman's claim. Although building a new port on East 55th will require 20 years of work, Wasserman estimates it will cost $150 million — only a quarter of the total cost, he boasts. That share will be picked up by a mix of funding, both public and private, national and local. That means you. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will kick in the rest, Wasserman says, to the tune of $450 million.

What's the port smoking? The project will require transporting the 330,000 cubic yards of mud — enough to fill up Browns Stadium — that are dredged each year from the Cuyahoga River. And not for just one year — for 20 years straight. The mud will be dumped near East 55th to create a new foundation for the port. Josh Feldman, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' coordinator for the project, says it's one of the largest endeavors he's ever worked on.

And that's just the beginning. After laying down the mud, the port will still have to link the new land to railroads and highways, and rebuild its facilities. It will have to install new sewer lines, lay asphalt on the site, excavate its old facilities, and establish another sewer system on the vacated site.

But Wasserman's estimates cover costs associated only with East 55th. And the Corps of Engineers will kick in only for moving the mud.

That's why others, like port watchdog Ed Hauser, estimate the move at close to $1.2 billion — which means even more money out of taxpayers' pockets. The money, Hauser predicts, will come from tax revenue that the port receives from the county each year, currently to the tune of $3.5 million. But the port, Hauser says, is working in the legislature to increase the sum — to $30 million a year.

Arrested Development
What the port's saying: In his polished touting of the port plan — he's done it everywhere from public radio to the cover of local magazines — Wasserman generally focuses on where the port is going, not the space it's leaving behind. In fact, mention the value of the land the port will leave — land coveted by developers — and Wasserman responds with a mix of defensiveness and rehearsed platitude.

"You write what you need to write," he tells Scene. "But the new port could potentially be an economic heartbeat. We're kind of excited."

What's the port smoking? Thousands of drivers pass the port every day, but they're more inclined to look at the beaming JumboTron of Browns Stadium than the rows of big blue sheds along the lake.

Developers, though, can't take their eyes off the port.

To this group of affluent elders, the port's lakeside perch is more attractive than a Lawrence Welk retrospective on public television — 130 acres of undeveloped lakeside real estate, glimmering like stacks of gold bars. It's reportedly the most valuable unused piece of real estate between New York and Chicago.

Perhaps no developer is keener on the land's value than John Carney. A prominent downtown developer, Carney has been on the port's board since 1996. And he became the board's chairman in March 2006, around the time the port's relocation started to gain momentum. He served in that role until March of this year — the same month the plan was approved by city and county leaders. If the port's move is successful, perhaps no one stands to gain more than he does.

Carney has a monetary interest in four upscale apartment buildings in the Warehouse District: the Grand Arcade condos, on St. Clair, where young professionals stumble home from a night of scotch and soda; the Water Street apartments, which overlook the port and are being converted into loft-style condos; the Bridgeview Apartments, a four-block dog walk from the port; and the Perry Payne lofts, less than a mile away on West Ninth. Any development of the port's current locale would drive up the value of Carney's buildings. And when it comes time to find developers to spruce up the vacant lakeside land, don't be surprised to hear Carney's name.

It's a conflict with a familiar ring: In 2007, Carney was criticized by The Plain Dealer for voting on an eminent-domain proposal to give the East Bank of the Flats to the Wolstein Company. That development — a mix of shops, condos, and office space — has the potential to put even more money in Carney's pockets, presuming there's room. He should have stepped down, The PD wrote.

Carney, who didn't return Scene's calls, said at the time that he was just trying to help Cleveland. And when his reappointment came up last year, the county commissioners agreed. They returned him to his seat, with a 2-1 vote. That Carney's brother-in-law, Commissioner Tim Hagan, gave the deciding vote didn't seem to matter.

Trapped in the Closet
What the port's saying: A 20-year project. Hundreds of millions of dollars. The transformation of a lightweight port into a shipping powerhouse, a shrinking Rust Belt town into an "international gateway." It seems like the sort of thing that would excite the public — the kind of plan people should be involved in. Wasserman says the port has given them every opportunity.

"We've done a lot of work interfacing with elected leaders, neighborhood groups, [and] nonprofits, and we're not done,"  he says. "We're still having meetings with people."

What's the port smoking? There's been exactly one public meeting about the port's relocation. It was held on February 19. And calling it "public" might be a stretch.

During the meeting, the port board announced that public comments would be limited to two minutes. Of course, voicing your support for such a project can be done pretty quickly. Only complicated questions — about financing, about environmental concerns, about openness — take longer than two minutes.

"I had, at the least, four issues that I wanted to speak on," says Hauser, the port watchdog, who's spent a decade on a quixotic quest to save Whiskey Island from the port. "But as a citizen of Cleveland, I'm only worthy of two minutes, according to the port."

But the port's strongest stiff-arming of the public concerns its relocation study. In June of 2004, City Council and county commissioners wrote to former Mayor Jane Campbell, urging that the study be done by a consultant picked by council and the commissioners, and that they oversee the process. As a result, the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission set aside $200,000 to study whether and where to move the port.

But that was when Tim McCormack was still a commissioner. After his departure in 2005, the new board — now featuring Carney's brother-in-law, Hagan — changed its mind, allowing the port to commission its own study. In summer of 2006, the study was taken over by URS Corporation, a San Francisco-based design firm. This new study to investigate potential sites for a new port cost $900,000.

Two years later, nobody had seen it.

Finally, on January 30 of this year, during a live interview on 90.3-FM WCPN, Wasserman pledged that the study would be released before that first public meeting in February. But February, March, and April passed with no signs of the report. In the meantime, the city planning commission and county commissioners rubber-stamped the move.

The port finally released the study last week — two months to the day since the city signed off on the plan, and more than two months since the solitary public meeting. The study analyzes potential relocation sites — and that's about it. It doesn't address the project's cost, the reality of container shipping, or other obvious questions. But by delaying the study, the port essentially prevented the public from having its say.

"The port hasn't been forthcoming," says Penny Jeffrey, president of the League of Women Voters of the Cleveland Area. "Not all the links are filled in. Where the decision to move to East 55th came from is not really clear. Nor is how much planning has gone into it."

Another Shot at Whiskey, Please
What the port's saying: Whiskey Island, the tiny emerald gem in the heart of near West Side industry, has been threatened by every waterfront plan since 1995. The island — 30 acres of green space that includes a public marina as well as Wendy Park and Sunset Grille, the heaven-sent bar that quenches the thirst of volleyball players and kayakers — sits on the edge of the lake and the west shore of the Cuyahoga, a perfect spot for a port.

Wasserman has said that as it moves east, the port will use temporary sites. The location of such sites hasn't been made public yet. But one of the initial plans was to fill in the Whiskey Island marina. Wasserman assures: "We've since abandoned that plan."

What's the port smoking? Despite Wasserman's promise, 10 years of constant moves and threats — including the county's two-year, $250,000 eminent-domain lawsuit, which was eventually dropped in 2005 — make his oath sound hollow to many.

Besides, it was only in January 2006 that Carney told the West Side Sun News: "We also have to get part of Whiskey Island, and I think that will happen. While Wendy Park (on Whiskey Island) will stay a park, we plan to acquire the land we need from the county."

Carney has long sought to pilfer the Whiskey Island Marina for the port. But the one man who's prevented the hostile takeover is Hauser. He's the lone wolf who's keeping track of port procedures with a trusty VHS recorder and OCD-like documentation. And he's not convinced the port is done coming for his sunny Valhalla of volleyball and tallboys.

"These guys have wanted to get the marina for a decade," says Hauser. "I can already hear the county telling me that they'll have to give up the marina to help the port move. And once the marina is gone, you can kiss Wendy Park goodbye."

The Green Issue
What the port's saying: Give them this: The guys running the port aren't dumb. They know that to succeed these days, you have to be green — or at least promise to be green. So port officials have promised that the port is treating environmental concerns with the utmost care. The new port will be one of the greenest around, they say. And the increased container shipping will remove hundreds of gas-guzzling polluters from the road. To get the county's blessing, they've promised the county that water circulation, impact on fishing habitats, and impact on migratory birds will all be addressed.

What's the port smoking? In giving the port the go-ahead, the county accepted a promise ring instead of securing a pre-nup. Three years after the county first started dreaming about moving the port, there remains no information regarding the environmental impact of the port relocation. On its website dedicated to the move, www.yourfutureport.com, the "environment" link leads to a page that boasts, "Coming soon! Check back frequently," with a sunny picture of a little girl walking alongside a verdant shoreline in sky-blue capris.

A draft of the environmental-impact statement won't be done until November, says Josh Feldman, of the Corps of Engineers. But it will address only the creation of the new land mass. It's a pretty narrow look into something that affects 200 football fields worth of space.

"This is a radical change for the lakefront," says Barbara Martin, chair of the Dike 14 Nature Preserve Committee, a nonprofit established to save Ohio's wildlife habitat. "There is no comparative study to measure the value of recreation weighed against this impulsive move that is essentially taking over a piece of lakefront that has historically been for public use."

In Closing, Hide Your Wallet
While the port relocation plan remains in its infancy, it's moving fast — faster than most public policy initiatives ever move in Cleveland. Yet the details of each new phase seem to come after the port already has a green light. The port does, however, hope to have its second public meeting sometime this summer.

Keep your questions handy. And short.

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