The nearly two dozen small harbors in Connecticut that promote economic development in towns from Norwalk to Groton are fighting to be included in the state's new Port Authority that focuses on the three deep water ports in Bridgeport, New Haven and New London.
A state report to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature says Connecticut's ports are a "critical, but underutilized" part of the state's economy and calls for continuing programs that support the maritime economy, "particularly in smaller and mid-size harbors."
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The statement is mild, but it's forceful backing of the smaller harbors, said Geoffrey Steadman, a planner for coastal projects.
"The first proposal was that the Port Authority should recognize the role of small harbors," he said. "'Recognize' could be hello and goodbye."
Malloy signed legislation last June establishing the Port Authority, a quasi-public agency intended to develop and market the state's ports and maritime economy. The report released last week makes recommendations about the Port Authority's mission, funding, staffing and other details.
John Paul Mereen of the Norwich Harbor Management Commission said the idea of the Port Authority is a "very good one."
"The concern was what does that do for smaller harbors and where do they fit in in all this," he said. "We feel there are some things left up in the air and might disappear without sources to follow on."
Local officials want to make sure local harbors are dredged to attract private boaters and the revenue they bring, Mereen said.
Smaller harbors on Long Island Sound or on rivers draw tourism, boaters and others who spend money locally. In Norwalk, materials are taken off barges, removing traffic from Interstate 95, said state Sen. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk.
The volume of cargo imports has declined more than 80 percent since 2006, driven mostly by the recession and weak recovery, but also because Connecticut has not been active enough in marketing its ports in the global marketplace, the report said.
State government's fiscal problems also weigh on expanding the marketing of Connecticut's ports. Catherine Smith, commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development, which issued the report, said the recommendations take into account the limited revenue available and the "work that will be required to build up a larger revenue profile" for the port authority.
The principal source of state revenue to support maritime operations are operating agreements for the State Pier in New London for cargo handling and a lease with a seafood co-op. Revenue from 2007 to 2014 averaged $393,672 annually.
However, running the state maritime office in the Department of Transportation costs about $900,000 a year, far outpacing revenue. As a result, the report says expanding maritime activities must be considered in the context of the state's fiscal problems.
The legislature is reviewing a proposed two-year budget with numerous spending cuts to cover a projected deficit of more than $1 billion in each year.
The prospect that the smaller harbors will be overshadowed by the Bridgeport, New Haven and New London ports is a factor, but is not a crisis, said Duff, the Senate majority leader.
"There's no panic at the moment," he said. "There's a concern that the smaller harbors do not lose their voice."
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