Failed megaport site still vacant and is losing value

Carolina Journal – N.C. Ports Authority bought land in 2006 and after megaport project collapsed still has no plans to use it

The 600-acre waterfront property in Southport set aside for a state-run “megaport” remains vacant and the N.C. State Ports Authority has no plans to develop or sell it. The property’s most recent tax appraisal also shows the land is worth half its original purchase price.

The Star-News of Wilmington reported in mid-November that the property, bought in 2006 by the Ports Authority for $30 million, was appraised at $15 million in 2013. The state also spent $10.2 million to develop the site before abandoning the megaport project.

In 2012, Carolina Journal noted the proposed megaport had three major problems: It is located adjacent to Progress Energy’s Brunswick Nuclear Plant; there is significant organized local opposition to the project; and a new port had little support in the General Assembly.

Caswell Beach resident Toby Bronstein, a former spokeswoman for Save the Cape, a group opposed to the megaport, still wonders why the authority is hanging on to the land. “The authority should let this property go. Sell it or develop it into a park. But I am not sure the authority has abandoned the dream of a megaport,” she told CJ this week.

The CJ story noted that in the early 1980s, Progress Energy Carolinas opposed a potential coal handling facility on the same site that had been proposed by Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Williams Companies.

For the site to work, Williams needed an agreement with Progress Energy, then known as Carolina Power & Light, to share the company’s rail line that wrapped around the nuclear plant. After a brief study, Progress officials decided not to cooperate, citing a significant safety concern: During an emergency at the plant, a long train on the rail line could block access to the site, delaying evacuation or containment efforts. Williams then abandoned interest in the site.

As the CJ story pointed out, freight trains servicing the proposed megaport typically would be a mile long, posing a similar safety concern for Progress.

The land along the river adjacent to the nuclear plant was vacant until the early 1970s, when the pharmaceutical company Pfizer bought part of it to manufacture citric acid. The facility was built in 1973, but did not occupy all the land Pfizer purchased.

By the early 1980s, Pfizer offered to sell some of the land, including the site the Ports Authority eventually acquired. In 1990, Pfizer sold its citric acid plant to agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland while retaining ownership of several undeveloped adjacent properties.

In early 2005, after learning the 600-acre tract was for sale, Ports Authority CEO Tom Eagar took measures to acquire it even though he had no feasibility study for the site justifying the development of a new port.

The sale closed the following year, but the project went nowhere.

“There is no way this project will fail. There is no way we can allow this project to fail,” Eagar told CJ during a break at a Ports Authority board meeting in May 2010. He said the state-owned ports at Morehead City and Wilmington were not adequate to meet the economic development mission of the authority.

With no imminent plans to use the site, the state continues to hang onto vacant, untaxed waterfront property that has declined in value.