Tax dollars sought to shore up riverfront industry
The blight along the Detroit River starts downstream of the Ambassador Bridge with the vacant 10-story building recognizable by the peeling sign for the Boblo Island dock. It’s a reminder of the once-bustling amusement park that closed 23 years ago.
Continuing downstream toward the Rouge River is Zug Island, the 596-acre home to U.S. Steel Corp.’s mill operations, with its mountains of coal and iron ore, and furnaces that are the size of skyscrapers. On its banks are rows of bridge cranes built decades ago to load and unload cargo from the massive freighters that navigate the river and the Great Lakes.
“That technology is outdated; freighters don’t load cargo that way anymore,” said John Loftus, executive director of the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority, the government agency that promotes southeast Michigan’s maritime industries. “At least one of those cranes will be scrapped.”
On a recent clear fall day, Loftus gave reporters a boat tour of the industrial parts of the two rivers to make the argument that the industrial riverfront remains essential — and also in need of urgent investment. That includes tax money, he contends.
“There are great opportunities along the Detroit and Rouge rivers to expand our maritime opportunities, our cargo and freight capabilities,” Loftus said.
Those opportunities exist because so much has been abandoned.
Just downstream of the confluence of the Rouge and Detroit rivers stands the 59-year-old DTE Energy coal-fired energy plant. The power plant began closing last year because it lacks modern pollution controls. Sometime between 2020 and 2023, the entire facility will shutter.
On the Rouge River is the channel that Henry Ford had widened nearly 100 years ago to give lake freighters, with their loads of coal and iron ore, access to the Ford Rouge complex. Now, chunks of the seawall on that channel are crumbling. Several years ago, a piece of the steel-reinforced concrete broke and allowed enough sediment to flow into the water that it temporarily closed the Rouge River to freighter traffic.
“We shouldn’t forget these rivers have made this area a mecca for centuries,” Loftus said.
Loftus is among the proponents of the industrial riverfront who are looking for taxpayer funding to bolster the aging infrastructure and mammoth facilities along the waterfront.
A pair of bills that easily passed the state House of Representatives recently would expand the ability to use tax money for private maritime businesses. The proposed legislation is now in the state Senate.
The legislation would allow taxpayer money to go toward upgrading infrastructure such as crumbling seawalls and allowing the private industries to enhance their facilities.
The bills will mean more jobs and more imports and exports, said state Rep. Holly Hughes, R-Montague, one of the sponsors.
“I have spoken with lake shippers, dock owners, manufacturers and many other stakeholders who believe that Michigan has great potential to develop and enhance our state’s ports,” Hughes said.
The legislation, sponsored by state representatives Wendell Byrd from Detroit, Jason Sheppard from Monroe, and Hughes, would allow the Michigan Economic Development Corporation and the Detroit Wayne County Port Authority to provide financial assistance to commercial marine terminals and related facilities throughout the state. Currently, the Port Authority is restricted from assisting any marine facility unless it owns it.
Part of the legislation would expand the definition of a port facility to anything that would enhance commercial maritime business. Funding of port authorities and port facility projects would be determined by local authorities and governments. Funding could come from a municipality’s general fund, additional taxes or means such as bonds. The bills passed by a large majority in the state House of Representatives.
While dozens of various maritime industries testified in support of the bills, there was criticism. West Michigan Dock & Market Corp. in Muskegon says the proposed legislation is foolish government investment.
“Muskegon used to have the freighter cargoes back in the ’40s and ’50s, but that went away with our manufacturing jobs,” said Max McKee, president of West Michigan Dock & Market Corp., a waterfront storage facility.
“These bills think if you build another port, with taxpayer money, that cargo will come back to Muskegon. That’s not going to happen,” McKee said.
Saginaw-based Sargent Docks & Terminal Inc. and Midland-based Fisher Contracting Co. also submitted official opposition to the bills. “Saginaw River users currently pay taxes to 10 different municipalities,’’ said William Webber, president of Sargent Docks. “This simply adds another layer of government bureaucracy to an already overburdened industry.”
The industrial parts of the Detroit and Rouge rivers remain essential links to the $4 billion in annual revenue generated by the Great Lakes waterway economy. In the Port of Detroit alone, some 17 million tons of cargo pass through the terminal operated by Nicholson Terminal & Dock Co. It’s located near the Historic Fort Wayne site.
The cargo transported on the lake freighters — some as long as 1,000 feet with a capacity of up to 70,000 tons — are the raw materials that fuel industry in the Upper Midwest: limestone, coal, iron ore, cement, salt.
Loftus said there continues to be major private investments from firms such as LaFarge North America, which recently built silos that store material to make cement.
There are also two big opportunities on the horizon, Loftus said. One is the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge that could greatly enhance the amount of cargo that will need to rely on riverfront terminals and logistics for delivery.
“The other is the predicted rise of freight overall,” Loftus said. “Freight movement — basically the delivery of goods — is expected to rise by up to 40 percent in the coming decades. We need to utilize waterways to avoid congestion of highways.”
The legacy of the industrial parts of the river are brutal on the surrounding communities. Detroit’s Delray neighborhood has some of the most polluted air in the nation. Rhonda Anderson, a senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club in Detroit, has been among the local residents fighting for a community that has borne a disproportionate share of the burden from riverfront industries.
Anderson wasn’t aware of the proposed legislation but said she hopes it includes measures to ensure that environmental concerns are addressed.
“I don’t know what the balance is between environmentally safe neighborhoods and the way those industries operate, but I don’t think we are at the point where we’ve found that balance completely,” Anderson said.
The potential legislation could possibly help fund for more environmental quality measures at private industries, Loftus said. “Our objective is to get the improvements in a cost-effective manner,” he said.