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North dock being repaired.

The Port in Oswego: Much More Than Just A Port

No other port is going through as much investment and expansion as Oswego, according to its director

By Steve Yablonski

Artist rendering of proposed performing arts center.
Artist rendering of proposed performing arts center.

The Port of Oswego Authority is a public benefit corporation and state authority established pursuant to Title 2 of Article 6 of Chapter 43-a of the Public Authorities Law of the State of New York.

Part of its mission is to enhance the commercial, recreational, historical and other aspects of the region.

“There are only two ports Upstate. There’s Ogdensburg and Oswego and we have about double the numbers of ship calls and tonnage per year than Ogdensburg,” said William Scriber, director of the Oswego Port. “No port is going through as much investment and expansion as we are. When you look at numbers, in just the last year and a half, we’re investing a little less than $26 million into a number of items. They all mark a huge economic impact for the local area in jobs and an increased ability for commercial and recreational expansion.”

“A lot of people don’t understand this, but the Port Authority that was established in 1955–’57 and was built in 1961–‘62 wasn’t just a port. It was not designed to be just a port. It was an authority,” he continued. “Because we took over the city harbor commission, and the name was the Port of Oswego Authority, we assumed the role of commercial, industrial, recreational and historical for the Oswego Port District, covering Oswego as well as Scriba. A lot of people get the impression that the Port of Oswego is just a port. We’re not. We are mandated to facilitate commercial, industrial, recreational and historical activity within our district — the Oswego Port District. What we’re attempting to do now is to fulfill our mandate completely.”

“When I became director, I had a good relationship with Albany. I reached out to Albany and the new DOT commissioner and basically gave a vision of where I’d like to see the port of Oswego go,” Scriber said.

The port recently announced the completion of the third of five projects awarded to the Port Authority of Oswego, as part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative (REDI).

The project addressed high water damage to the north end of the Port Authority’s east operating dock, which is located directly on Lake Ontario and highly susceptible to wave action and flooding. During high water events, the existing stone retaining wall failed to break waves, resulting in a breach of the wall and direct undercutting of the main dock, Scriber said.

“The completion of work on the east operating dock will ensure the safety of our employees and ensure that the vital work that we do here continues without interruption,” Scriber said.

In addition to the east operating dock, other projects completed under the REDI Commission at the Port of Oswego include $40,000 for the installation of new, self-adjusting docks to replace docks that were at a fixed elevation and nearly $150,000 for shoreline stabilization measures along the West Pier, where high water and excessive wave action had negatively impacted the berm.

“I’ve been here a number of years. I saw what the port needed to do to grow. The board I have now is very aggressive and very forward thinking. Basically where we’d like to be and where we are pushing to go is back to maritime history of this port and this town,” Scriber said. “Oswego is called the Port City for one important and inescapable reason. Maritime commerce and maritime trade created the city of Oswego and the surrounding area. And in 1955, when the legislation was taken away from the Oswego Harbor Commission, which was the city of Oswego, and moved to the state with the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the state in its own legislation said that we need a state authority to manage the maritime development of the area. And the area we were given was Oswego and Scriba and the waters within that jurisdiction – we are the only port in New York State on Lake Ontario. And we’re the first eastern port of call on the Great Lakes. For us, that means it’s a short run from Montreal to us, the busiest port outside of New York – New Jersey.”

Port Projects

• Goble Dry Dock — The project involves dredging of sediment and rock removal within the former dry dock area to establish the necessary draft and harbor limits for dockage to be installed to accommodate at least 26 vessels within the formal limits of the former dry dock and extending northward along the west side of the existing West Pier Wall. It was in disrepair. And it had been for a number of years. The port saw an opportunity to expand into that area and do improvements. It was under-utilized. This is in keeping with the port’s vision to expand its recreational opportunities as part of their duty to uphold their responsibility as an authority of the state of New York. “We’ll create a new marina. We’re going to provide boaters with the opportunity to make that quick connection between the water and downtown Oswego. This is a real historical area,” Scriber said.

• East Operating Dock Repairs — This project involves installation of new steel sheeting and placement of rip-rap to restore and protect the north end of the East Operating Dock and shoreline from further scour and erosion damage.

• Lehigh Cement Wall Repairs (POA Dock) — The proposed work includes repairs to the existing timber crib and concrete cap along an approximately 250-foot length of pier at the southeast end of the West Pier adjacent to the Lehigh Cement Facility. Status: The project was awarded to Crane Hogan on Dec. 7, 2020. Additional funding from NYS to cover unanticipated NYSDEC requirements has been allocated to the port. Construction is set to begin in spring 2021 with project completion occurring on or before Aug. 31.

• West Terminal Pier — This project involves reconstruction of the north end of the West Terminal Pier to repair/replace the existing timber cribbing and concrete cap that was damaged during the lake’s recent high-water levels and waves/surges from storm events.

• East Terminal Project — This project involves performing localized underwater repairs to the face of the existing steel pier wall to prevent the ongoing loss of the retained material behind the wall. It also involves filling in the resulting voids behind the pier wall and restoration of the two existing railroad tracks parallel to the dock which have settled and shifted to the point where they are no longer in service.

• Central New York Regional Agriculture Export Center Expansion Project — The Port of Oswego is preparing to embark on its largest grain expansion project since its inception. The Central New York Regional Agriculture Export Center Expansion Project will repurpose one existing bulk storage structure and construct a new grain tower with new dump pits for rail and truck, as well as the construction of a ship loading and container system. Construction of this $15 million project will triple the movement of agriculture products between the Port and suppliers in Central New York and Connecticut, and will broaden the Port’s export business to include international markets. The Port is responding to the needs of its shippers and manufacturers, and completion of this project will be a significant improvement to its existing system through increased capacity, efficiency, and flexibility.

“We came up with a number of items that we wanted to expand. We had, in 2018, exported 15% of all soy beans grown in New York State. We did that by ship. We did that under a temporary permit from the US Department of Agriculture,” Scriber explained. “Farmers were happy, a higher price was paid to them because the less you handle a product it doesn’t cost as much to handle it.”

Early in 2019, the port sent a large freighter to Egypt. But after that, they got a letter from the USDA saying that they would no longer allow the Port to export without a fully compliant scale system and lab.

“Anything that comes out of America to a foreign market needs to be graded just like your meats by USDA, right? So that shut us down. I was already in discussion with the DOT to build an export center here. When we got the letter, it became very apparent that we needed to do it because we could export anything,” Scriber said. “After a number of months we developed a plan that we could utilize to adhere to USDA regulations. We created a facility that could, on paper, adhere to the requirements of USDA. And in that plan we had to do a cost benefit analysis. We don’t do anything unless you prove it, right? We proved our case that it was going to have a positive economic impact.”

The port’s only grain storage site was torn down in the 1990s.

“So we had no options other than to build new. We went into a planning stage. We went into talks with DOT and USDA and created an ‘export center.’ We sold it to the state of New York and Gov. Cuomo and the state DOT commissioner actually saw the numbers and saw that that was a great idea,” Scriber said. “We went out to bid and I’m happy to say that WD Malone, a local company which employs a lot of people in Oswego County, won the bid and will break ground in early March.”

It will be located at the deeper part of the channel so ships can be loaded easily. It will be somewhat shorter, but wider, than the previous storage site.

“In 2017, a down year for us, we still produced more than 209 jobs and brought $26.7 million in activity. The numbers went up the next year. This is a growing market,” Scriber said. “In 2019, even with them taking our license away, we still exported 31 thousand metric tons. When I hear people say, ‘there isn’t a market,’ (I say,) ‘oh, God there is a market!’”

The Port operates the second largest rail yard in Oswego County. The largest is at the ethanol plant. The Port can put more than 100 cars into its system, Scriber said.

“So we’re not just relying just on ships. We run around the year,” he said.

Needed Improvements

In 2017, the Port was impacted by high water. Its damage was greater than the city’s, Scriber said, adding, “We have more than $6.15 million in repairs that are on-going right now.”

“Over the years as the docks failed, they weren’t replaced. A third of the capacity was lacking at the Oswego Marina. So, in the REDI money I asked for docks. We went through a dock rebuilding project and added an additional 12 docks—that’s an additional 24 spaces. And we’re adding another four this year,” Scriber said. “We’ve actually rebuilt to when that marina was originally built. We’re one of the bigger marinas in the area; the only deep water marina.”

Work is also being done to repair areas where the rail system is in danger of failing.

“When you add it up, we’ve completed the revetment, the high wind repairs, the docks and the north end —and most of the construction is done by local guys,” Scriber explained.

Project Costs

The cost of the revetment was $290,628.

East and West Terminal high water repairs cost $6,159,258.60

The high wind repairs had a price tag of $92,298.48

The work at the marina docks is $77,388

For the West Pier Lehigh (cement) it’s $1,204,135.81

Repairs have been made at the West Pier – Sprague (fuel) at a cost of $149,513.15

The cost for the Goble Boating Center comes in at $1,750,486.85

The East Operating Dock North End $611,000

The Agricultural Center will cost $15,000,000

Total cost of the Port’s projects: $25,334,708.89

Oswego had been ignored because it had just one port, according to Scriber.

“But now it is being noticed. It is one of only 32 that are part of the Marine Highway. We’re the only one in New York state. The designation enables the Port to get funds to do projects. We’re on a rebuild stage here at the Port. We’re not stopping.

We have six active projects right now,” he said. “The bottom line is that the impact that the Port has on the surrounding region isn’t being recognized for the accomplishment of what we’re doing. We want to change that perception. What we’re trying to do is be as big a positive impact on not just the city but the county and the state. We’ve gone too long with out fulfilling our mission.”

Recently, the Port completed a study on a waterfront performing arts center. Further plans have been put on back burner due to COVID-19. The Port is suffering just like everyone else during the pandemic. Even more so than some, Scriber acquiesced.

“But we’re looking toward the future,” he said. “We’re a year-round transportation hub. We do warehousing, we do rail, we do trucking, we do water, we do marinas, storage, agriculture, we lease property and we operate a marina. We operate as a business. We create stuff that benefits the community, but the community is not paying for it.”

“There are a lot of things at the Port people just aren’t aware of. This city was a maritime community. We had a big part in building this city. This place (Port) hasn’t invested in improvement in years. That’s what we’re doing now,” Scriber explained.

The Oswego Port District includes the Oswego Marina, the H. Lee White Marine Museum, the historic maritime district, as well as 14 companies that call it home for its domestic and international operations.

The Port is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Plans To Advance The Vision

Among the plans are: The Authority has submitted an application to be a Foreign Trade Zone. It would be the only FTZ within the county. It would allow the Authority to partner with development agencies within the Port district to offer added incentives to encourage businesses to locate in the Oswego Port District;

Continue infrastructure investments to accommodate larger vessels and feasible niche markets;

Dredge to maintain channel depth;

Improve Port access—rail and highway;

Maintain state of good repair and expansion for Port facilities.