Portland City Manager, Jon Jennings (left) and Mayor Ethan Strimling listen to Councilor Justin Costa speak at City Hall on Wednesday. Credit: Troy Bennett

PORTLAND, Maine — The City Council has cleared the way for the construction of a large new refrigerated warehouse that proponents contend will be a boon to Maine’s burgeoning food economy.

The City Council voted 8 to 1 Wednesday night to make zoning changes that will allow a cold-storage company to move forward with a plan to build a 68-foot-tall freezer facility on Portland’s western waterfront.

The planned facility will benefit Maine farmers, breweries and fishermen, who sometimes are pinched for refrigerated storage in the state, and help them reach international markets, according to the project’s numerous proponents in the business community and state and local governments.

The warehouse would likely be built and operated by Americold on waterfront property leased from the Maine Port Authority. It is intended, in part, to meet the demands of Eimskip, the Icelandic shipping company that made the port of Portland the hub of its North American operations in 2013.

“This issue is critical to the ongoing and future success, not only of the port of Portland but to the Maine economy,” Maine Commissioner of Transportation David B. Bernhardt told the Council before its vote.

The facility is forecasted to bring more than 950 jobs to the Portland area and eventually generate an annual economic impact of $171 million, according to a report by the Port Authority, the state Office of Policy and Management, the Greater Portland Council of Governments and the state Department of Transportation.

The council’s vote was not directly on the cold storage facility but on broader changes to the zoning in the port development area on the western waterfront. Those changes create areas where building heights can range from 50 feet to 60 feet and allow buildings with certain uses, including cold storage, to rise to 75 feet, as long as they are set at least 100 feet south of West Commercial Street or on Cassidy Point.

The Portland Planning Board unanimously recommended the changes in July.

Development of the cold-storage facility would still need to be approved through the city’s normal planning process, but the Port Authority already has selected Americold’s plan as the strongest of those submitted for the project.

There was broad consensus among people who spoke at the council meeting that the city would benefit from a new cold storage unit. But numerous residents of the West End, some of which overlooks the affected area, argued that the Americold facility should not be allowed to exceed 55 feet.

Several questioned whether the facility really needed to exceed that height to be economically viable, as Americold has claimed. Some worried about noise coming from the facility, others voiced concerns that it would damage Portland’s aesthetic and with it the tourist industry, and many expressed frustration that the company had not been more forthcoming with information about their plan.

This last concern was shared by several city councilors, with Nick Mavodones calling it “distressing.”

But all save one of the councilors felt the economic growth the zoning changes would allow outweighed these concerns. Only Spencer Thibodeau, whose district includes the West End, voted against the changes.
And many waterfront business owners said it was not only Eimskip and Americold that would benefit from the change.

Phineas Sprague, 68, said the zone changes would allow him to expand the operations of his business, the Portland Yacht Services, and help make Portland’s port more competitive.

“The opportunity that is here right now will last and provide jobs in Portland for generations, years after I’m gone.”