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Sunday, 22 November 2015 22:20

Stakeholders collaborate on studies to shape future for Port of Muskegon

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A group of community stakeholders wants to find ways to develop the Port of Muskegon as a logistics hub serving all of West Michigan. A group of community stakeholders wants to find ways to develop the Port of Muskegon as a logistics hub serving all of West Michigan. COURTESY PHOTO

MUSKEGON — The docking of the last coal freighter at the Consumers Energy B.C. Cobb power plant earlier this month serves as a harbinger of what’s to come for the Port of Muskegon.

The shipment marks the beginning of a decommissioning process for the aging coal-fired power plant that’s slated to continue through April 2016, but it also signals the loss of half the tonnage shipped through the port on an annual basis.

Critically, without increased shipping activity, the Port of Muskegon will fall below the 1 million-ton threshold the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers uses to prioritize funding for dredging at Great Lakes ports.

That has local officials collaborating on a litany of studies focused on developing the port into a regional logistics hub.

“Even though it’s a negative that we’re losing that plant and the tonnage, we’re really focusing on the positive for what that means,” said Erin Kuhn, executive director of West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC). “We are looking at it as an opportunity to turn the corner and reuse this asset in a sustainable manner.”

With the Consumers Energy plant in operation, shipping activity at the port typically reaches around 1.3 million tons annually. The loss of coal shipments to the Cobb plant means the port will receive only about 700,000 tons per year, short of the federal minimum to maintain dredging. (The Corps of Engineers will dredge ports with less tonnage if they rely on shipments for their source of power generation.)

Economic developers, local businesses and government officials want to collaborate to identify ways to boost annual shipments above 1 million tons as well as to establish Muskegon — and the broader West Michigan area — as an integral Midwest logistics hub. They say moving freight through Michigan alleviates the substantial truck and rail congestion around Chicago, which equates to cost savings on the part of businesses.

“The cost of moving freight is not decreasing,” said Rick Chapla, vice president of strategic initiatives at The Right Place Inc. “It’s increasing not just from a cost standpoint but also the time factors. The water transportation side represents a very real competitive advantage for West Michigan businesses.”

To reinvigorate activity at the port, economic developers, businesses, government officials and other stakeholders have launched a variety of studies looking into infrastructure development, the feasibility of establishing the port as a hub for shipping repurposed building materials and food distribution.

A handful of initial studies have already been completed and several more are in process. Most of the ongoing studies are slated to be completed by the fall of 2016.


The largest of the pending studies, an infrastructure and operational analysis report, will examine the best methods to position the Port of Muskegon as a regional logistics hub. The study will look at the current state of maritime, rail, road and air transportation throughout West Michigan and outline steps to better integrate the port into existing infrastructure.

Potential improvements to the various types of infrastructure will also be outlined as a result of the study.

The second part of the analysis will examine potential governance models for the Port of Muskegon by studying the operational and leadership structure of other ports around the U.S.

While both studies are slated to be completed by early summer in 2016, Kuhn said the substantial challenge for developing future port activity in Muskegon stems from issues of governance.

Most ports are either operated by a publicly held port authority or as a private entity. Currently, all of the property at the Port of Muskegon is privately held and therefore, because of current law, it is not eligible for federal or state grant dollars for infrastructure improvements. Economic and community developers hope that along with the local and state government, they can form a hybrid public-private approach to governance at the port to tap into some of those resources.

“Governance structure will be a huge tool in how we develop the port as a regional logistics hub (but) it will be a challenge to develop something to work for everyone,” Kuhn said.

To fund the study, WMSRDC relied on a combination of federal, state and local dollars.

Because the West Michigan Prosperity Alliance named the Port of Muskegon as its top priority last year, it triggered $31,250 in initial seed money that ultimately led to a matching $31,250 worth of funds from private businesses and community stakeholders. Those initial funds enabled the commission to pursue an additional $62,500 from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration to fully fund the study.


Beyond the infrastructure and operational analysis report, several other studies are in the process of outlining potential strategies to increase activity at the Port of Muskegon.

The Muskegon Lake Vision 2020 study was conceived as a “community visioning process” that takes into account future recreational, environmental, commercial and residential use of Muskegon Lake, Kuhn said.

With the Cobb power plant set to cease operation in April 2016, officials said they expect Muskegon Lake to be delisted as a federally designated area of concern. That’s why the Muskegon County Port Advisory Committee decided to collect community input through four public forums regarding the future use of the lake.

The Vision 2020 report will be the “guiding document” for development around the lake, said Ed Garner, president and CEO of Muskegon Area First. Stakeholders expect the draft version of the report to be released by the end of November.

Meanwhile, WMSRDC, Michigan State University and other local stakeholders recently partnered to assess the feasibility of creating a hub in Muskegon to collect materials from deconstructed blighted buildings throughout the Great Lakes region. The materials would be processed for repurposing.

Proponents say that the deconstruction hub would create a market for local businesses to repurpose those materials and use the Port of Muskegon to ship the resulting products to their customers.

The study in September 2015 received more than $111,000 in Local Technical Assistance funds from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration. It is expected to be completed in the Fall of 2016.

Economic developers are also considering the Mart Dock property at the Port of Muskegon as a possible location for a food hub to distribute local food in Muskegon County.

The food hub would increase access to food from providers across West Michigan as well as serve food deserts such as Muskegon Heights, Garner said. Products would be distributed to large customers such as school districts, hospitals and hotels.

An ongoing Food Hub Feasibility study will explore the potential locations, operators and retail outlets for the future food hub. The first phase of the study was completed in June 2015 and determined that a food hub was viable in Muskegon.

In October 2015, Muskegon Area First was awarded a $25,000 grant to complete the second phase of the study, which is currently underway and is expected to conclude by the end of March 2016.

While there already have been several studies completed, Garner sees the numerous reports as shaping the fortune success of the port.

“I would say that things are lining up appropriately as we projected,” Garner said. “I know we’ve done a lot of studies, but it seems like every study we do is coming back with positive results.”

Read 2990 times Last modified on Sunday, 22 November 2015 22:48

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