Saturday, November 21, 2009

Port may not move to E. 55th after all: What happened?

The mammoth plan to move the Cleveland port to East 55th Street may not happen after all. Members of the Port Authority board said at a press conference yesterday that they're going to re-examine the plans now that port president and CEO Adam Wasserman has resigned.

Wasserman wanted to make Cleveland the Great Lakes' biggest port. Mayor Frank Jackson had started to push hard for the plan. The half-billion-dollar expansion is meant to attract container shipping, to put Cleveland in competition with East Coast ports. It would be a big, ambitious gamble, even more of an "if you build it, will they come?" risk than the Medical Mart. No other Great Lakes ports are doing big business in container shipping today.

Now, Port Authority board president Steven Williams says the port will re-examine the economic projections behind the port expansion. It'll still expand and move the port if those projections hold up. But a lot of the port's studies are actually cautious about the prospects for container shipping. So there's a chance the expansion will be out the door with Wasserman.

The port is a mess. Not only does it not have the money to move, it's struggling with its shorter-term plans to renovate the current port site near Browns Stadium. Its bond rating has dropped, hurting another part of its job: providing financing to dozens of area development projects, many of them far from the lakeshore. It doesn't even have the money for a dredging project to keep the harbor open!

Wasserman resigned two weeks ago with a severance package of more than $300,000. The decision came suddenly and without explanation. Now, we're starting to get some details.

Christopher Evans, the Plain Dealer editorial writer, offers inside scoop today about how Wasserman fell. {Update, 11/23: His column, which wasn't posted online on Saturday, is up now.} He confirms that the October resignation of maritime director Pat Coyle was the first sign of strife: Williams interviewed Coyle and found out all was not well at the port offices. Once the board started asking questions, Wasserman hired a lawyer, then resigned. Evans questions the size of Wasserman's contract buyout and wants an explanation.

To understand the history of the port controversy, check out Michael D. Roberts' piece in this week's Scene. Roberts (also a Cleveland Magazine columnist) has been opposed to the port relocation for years. He argues that port board member John Carney was the biggest force behind the expansion, and he criticizes Carney as having conflicts of interest. Carney owns several properties in the Warehouse District, which could become more valuable if the current port site near Browns Stadium is redeveloped as a new waterfront neighborhood. Carney has also expressed interest in developing the lakefront, Roberts says.

That possible conflict made the Plain Dealer yesterday, as the developer of Quay 55, at the Shoreway and East 55th Street, called on Carney to be removed from the board. The PD's editorial today takes a fuzzy middle ground on the Carney conflict question. It's skeptical about the idea that the relocation is meant to benefit Carney and other developers, since lots of people agree that it's a good idea to move the port and open up the lakefront. The editorial doesn't call for Carney's resignation, but it does say that future port board members shouldn't have potential conflicts. Seems like a very careful stance.

But the paper also helpfully tells us who the port board members are, who appointed them, and how long their terms last. Carney is one of the three members appointed by the county commissioners (the city of Cleveland appoints the other six). His term expires Jan. 28, 2011 -- the 28th day that Cuyahoga County's new charter government will be in power. If the future county executive and council, elected on a mandate for reform, get to choose who's in that seat, my guess is this will be Carney's last term on the port board.

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