The Port of Newport has the pieces in place for smoother sailing, but the next 12 months are critical to creating a framework in which shipping can set up operations at the International Terminal.
That’s according to Stewart Lamerdin, who resigned as port president last month to head a marine initiative at The College of William and Mary in Virginia after an unsuccessful bid for port general manager here. Following four bruising years that saw shipping deals fall through and conflicts with fishermen over how the terminal should be used, Lamerdin gave his perspective on the port’s current status and what’s ahead.
The port has hired a general manager and finance director in the past several months, bringing badly needed direction on the administrative end. But watchful lawmakers in Salem who sponsored a bill last session to put the facility under state control will be looking for results, Lamerdin believes.
The port and local lawmakers headed off that bill, but it could be back.
“There’s been a lot of positive momentum,” Lamerdin said. “Finances are doing well, the commission has settled down and is moving forward in a mature way. I think we were able to make the case in Salem that things might not be quite as bad as they seem, and that justified a longer term approach. Elected officials are going to see how things go. This isn’t simply going away. I think you need to look at it as an opportunity for continued growth and momentum.”
There are tough tasks ahead for port leadership, which must cement a schedule on when the terminal will be available for shipping and when fishermen may use it, Lamerdin believes. While conversations with shippers continue, it’ll be hard to strike a deal until the terminal’s availability is formalized.
“The port needs to get all the stakeholders in one room and hammer out operating parameters,” Lamerdin said. “Then they need to put that information on their website and move forward in finding shippers who can work with those windows.”
Increased moorage fees are helping boost revenue, but the port can’t tax its way out through rate increases and needs to look to getting a better return on investments like the terminal to help offset significant costs of deferred maintenance, Lamerdin said.
“I would be looking for the general manager to do a deep dive into the leases to make sure they were negotiated at market value,” Lamerdin said.
“I think the port is financially sound — certainly compared to other ports in the area,” Lamerdin added.
Increasing the port’s return on investment, continuing to boost communications with the public and keeping connected to Salem would have remained his top priorities had he not been called elsewhere.
“I have been incredibly fortunate,” Lamerdin said. “As challenging as it has been I feel so fortunate to have had the opportunity to be a part of the port and support the community. My family misses Newport but it’ll be good for them to experience another part of the country.”