MOREHEAD CITY – Expanding the state port’s operations on Radio Island will require major transportation infrastructure improvements and significant investment in site preparation, which the county’s economic development director promises will be handled differently than controversial port projects of the past.
The State Ports Authority has faced stiff public opposition to previous proposals to develop facilities to handle or process liquefied natural gas, ammonia and sulfur at the N.C. Port of Morehead City and criticism over its lack of transparency regarding its plans, a pattern spanning decades. Don Kirkman, Carteret County Economic Development director, told Coastal Review Online that this latest effort would be different.
Kirkman went before the Carteret County Board of Commissioners Aug. 19 to share a summary of the findings of a site study that looked at what it would take to develop Radio Island and presented conceptual uses of the site. He told the board members that his presentation, which included PowerPoint, was a public information presentation and an effort to be more proactive and transparent about the development of Radio Island.
“I think the history of Radio Island has been a little bit more reactive,” he said during the meeting in Beaufort. “We have a history of controversy around projects that have been proposed, and we want to try to be as transparent as possible and to involve elected leaders and the community at large and the public early on in the process if projects are identified.”
The ports authority did not respond to multiple requests for comment by deadline.
Kirkman told Coastal Review Online last week there have been projects proposed for the Morehead City port, generally, and Radio Island, specifically, that were controversial, “because the proposed use involved the handling of a commodity that was deemed dangerous or an environmental threat.”
The assessment provided both feedback on the infrastructure needs of the property to prepare it to be marketed to prospective users as well as categories of potential users that will allow the State Ports Authority to proactively market the site to prospective port customers, he said.
“This preliminary end user identification will allow the NC Ports to be more proactive in their marketing efforts rather than reactive, and hopefully this will help avoid the controversies that arose in the past,” Kirkman explained.
He cited as examples potential expansions of existing port commodities, such as wood products, agricultural nutrients, rubber, as well as refrigerated storage, roll-on/roll-off products such as vehicles, the building or repair of large oceangoing yachts and energy generation component fabrication and assembly.
Radio Island’s large amount of available acreage on deep water with easy accessibility to the Atlantic Ocean makes it an attractive economic development opportunity for port-related industry, Kirkman told Coastal Review Online.
“There is a large gap, however, between having a large tract of waterfront property and having a developed port site that is ready for occupancy,” he said.
The county and the State Ports Authority applied in mid-January for the Duke Energy Site Readiness Program, which gives selected communities the opportunity to have one or more sites evaluated by a site location consulting firm to determine the potential for development in the Duke Energy service area.
“Duke Energy pays for the consulting services of the two consulting firms, and in addition, Duke Energy offers a $10,000 matching grant to assist with site preparation, which is a huge cost savings to the local community,” Kirkman said.
Earlier this summer, the consulting team, Strategic Development Group of Columbia, South Carolina, and O’Brien Atkins Associates of Durham, shared their findings with Kirkman and other stakeholders. The findings presented July 23 addressed five components: Site Selection Fundamentals, Competing in Today’s Economy, Economic Development 101, Demographics with a focus on labor force, and the Radio Island site.
During his presentation to county commissioners, Kirkman said that the state itself or through the ports authority own about 200 acres on Radio Island. The extensive analysis was confined to the 141 acres west of Marine Drive and looked at infrastructure available to the Radio Island, soil types, zoning and topography. The analysis does not include any modification of the public beach access or the area north of U.S. 70 where the public boat ramp and pier are located.
“All of this property west of Marine Drive is within the town of Morehead City. It is within their incorporated jurisdiction, it is within its zoning authority and is served by Morehead City water and sewer utilities,” he said, adding that there’s no real role for the county in the permitting process. The site is zoned port-marine, or PM. Plans would go through the town of Morehead City. There’s not a county role in the actual permitting or development of Radio Island.
But traffic along the already heavily traveled, often snarled stretch of U.S. 70 would increase, one of the challenges for future development noted in the assessment.
“In the TIP the Newport River (high-rise bridge) is going to be widened to four lanes. That is going to be an enormously complicated and challenging project, which obviously will have very significant implications for how one enters and exits Radio Island,” Kirkman told commissioners.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation’s current TIP, or Statewide Transportation Improvement Program, identified 1,367 projects to be funded between 2018 and 2027, including project No. U-5876, widening from Fourth Street in Morehead City to Radio Island Road. The total estimated project cost is about $156.1 million.
“The plan, as I understand it currently, is to relocate the Duke transmission lines to south of the rail trestle to build two new lanes of the Newport River Bridge, where the current Duke transmission lines are located. Then tear down the existing two lanes of the Newport River Bridge and build them where they are. That’s going to be a very complicated project,” Kirkman told commissioners.
Right-of-way acquisition for the widening project is expected to begin in 2021, and construction in 2025, Kirkman said. One of the admonitions of the site location consultants is to make sure that as these plans are designed to to accommodate the development of port-owned property on Radio Island.
Kirkman paused during his presentation to explain that the slides show “simply hypothetical, conceptual ideas about what could happen in terms of accommodating a build-out scenario within existing environmental regulations for impervious surface and stormwater controls and the like. And again, this is purely just an idea, a visualization of what might be done there at some point in the future.”
Kirkman reviewed for the board a handful of suggested end users including existing customers of the port or marine or maritime-related manufacturing or assembly. He also went over a few build-out concepts proposed by the consultants and the suggestion to consider developing the site as an industrial park with multiple parcels or multiple tenants on the west side of Marine Drive.
Ultimately, Kirkman said, “There are an unlimited number of scenarios for construction there and obviously anything that would be constructed there would have to comply with all applicable federal, state, local and town permits.”
The state Ports Authority intends to maintain ownership of the land and is not interested in selling Radio Island, he said. “They’re interested in developing it for port-related uses. That property was acquired back in 1964 for an expansion of the Morehead City port, it’s part of the port of Morehead City, it’s been used that way and the future use will be a port-related, maritime use.”
Not A Duke Energy Project
Kirkman told the board that Duke Energy, which funded the study, has no input on what is to be developed.
“Duke Energy has a program, we applied for the program, and the program was for Duke Energy to pay for these expert consultants to come in and do an assessment of the site, that was the Duke Energy role.”
Kirkman wrote in a follow-up email that Duke Energy “simply offers a program to identify potential sites that could be used for economic development in their service territories. They are not advocates for any particular type of development activity, nor do they have any control over the development because they do not own or control the property. They offer the program as a service to the local communities that they serve.”
Meredith Archie, lead communications consultant with Duke Energy Corporate Communications, explained in an email that, “The Site Readiness program works to identify sites and develops a strategy to make the site ready for potential economic development projects.”
The program has helped in preparing properties for 18 major projects in North Carolina since the program started in 2005, resulting in more than 5,100 new jobs and nearly $6.1 billion in capital investment, according to Duke Energy.
“Duke Energy works with major site selection firms like Strategic Development Group to evaluate the sites. Based on consultant recommendations, Duke Energy will collaborate with county leaders and local economic development professionals to develop an improved strategy for marketing these sites,” Archie added.
After the potential end users are identified, they will need to work closely with the State Ports Authority, Morehead City and regulatory agencies to site their projects and the county economic development department will remain engaged in the process “to help market the site through our relationships with regional and state economic development partners, as well as to respond to requests for assistance and information by prospective customers,” Kirkman said.
Morehead City manager Ryan Eggleston told Coastal Review Online that the town is aware of the Radio Island site readiness assessment report and have heard Kirkman’s presentation.
“We understand currently there are no submitted plans for development of Radio Island by the Port, and that this document is a tool for planning purposes,” he said. “We will continue to monitor the progress of the program. Our priority at the city is to continue to make Morehead City a great place to call home while promoting sound economic development.”