Salem News: Salem can lead on offshore wind –if it acts now

SAFE members Mike Magee and Stan Franzeen recently published the following commentary in the Salem News (July 29, 2021).

This legislative session could end with great news for Salem. Mass. House Bill 3922 will likely provide up to $100 million for port infrastructure and workforce development for several Massachusetts ports, including Salem. The offshore wind industry will be coming to Salem sooner rather than later —the question is, will Salem residents benefit from the industry’s decision to locate operations at our port?

In the last six months, a shared vision for offshore wind development in Salem has emerged through robust dialogue among environmental advocates, the mayor’s office, the Salem Harbor Port Authority, and the Salem Municipal Harbor Plan Committee: The land surrounding the power plant should become a public asset controlled and managed by the port authority, which would work together with offshore wind developers and related marine businesses to bring jobs, training, and revenue to Salem. The city has started to work with the state to lay out a plan. Sounds like a done deal, right?

The offshore wind industry will be coming to Salem sooner rather than later —the question is, will Salem residents benefit from the industry’s decision to locate operations at our port?

Wrong. Advocates see four major challenges whose outcomes could affect whether offshore wind development will be beneficial to Salem’s future. In moving quickly to solve these challenges, the city has the opportunity to launch decades of offshore wind installation, operations and maintenance that could, once again, make the Salem port an economic engine for the region. Let’s take these challenges one by one.

First, and most importantly, the 42-acre parcel needs a fair-market appraised value to transition from a private asset to a public one. This past spring, the port authority voted to fund and contract with a well-known appraiser that has done similar port appraisals. Incredibly, the appraisal effort was intentionally stalled and then cancelled at the last port authority meeting. Addressing this challenge is not complicated. Let’s move forward with the appraisal. Overseeing this task should be assigned to a person with clear authority and accountability who will ensure it is handled with the appropriate urgency.

Second, to transition the parcel to a public asset — i.e., state or city ownership — the property must be acquired. That can be done through the commonly used process of friendly eminent domain. Sometimes this process can be less friendly, but it always gets done. If the city takes the lead, the port authority already has the legislated authority and duty to initiate and manage this process. The appraisal, however, is required to complete this.

If Salem acquires the property, Salem’s residents will own that property forever, allowing us to control the property’s future and provide public access and opportunity for generations to come. Salem’s current downshifting from “city speed” to an even slower “state speed” opens a window of vulnerability for us. Meanwhile, Footprint Realty is gearing up, going from “business speed” to “industry speed” as it reviews bids it has quietly gathered from developers through a Request for Expression of Interest. Those bids have not been shared as promised, as Footprint claims that the bids contain proprietary information.

While the city restarts its six-to-eight week “getting to know the state” clock, as discussed at the June 23 port authority meeting, Footprint can sell or lease the property to a private interest. Don’t be mistaken, doing so is certainly within their rights and in their playbook.

Addressing this challenge takes resolve and commitment but we have the resources to do it. The port authority, mayor and city legal team should start the friendly eminent domain process now for the benefit of the residents of Salem and the commonwealth. Once the process begins, the property cannot be leased or sold, and all negotiations regarding the property become fully transparent.

The third challenge is the absence of city resources exclusively dedicated to a multimillion-dollar opportunity for Salem in a multibillion-dollar burgeoning offshore wind industry. Salem, having been advised for some 18 months about the arrival of offshore wind, has not dedicated a single resource to offshore wind. In contrast, New Bedford’s success is tied to quick action, dedicated staffing, liaising with various agencies, and unrelenting hard work. Salem can fix this handily with two to three dedicated staff. We have very smart people who can get these tasks moving, but they need to start now.

The final challenge is the lack of transparency – from Footprint and the city. Many good people, both private citizens and public servants, are trying to stay informed but are instead becoming suspicious or alienated.

Thankfully, transparency is the easiest to fix. The city should provide regular updates on the progress of the offshore wind activities, especially those going on with the city-state partnership. The port authority should be authorized to share this information without political filters. Let the public know that Salem can and will succeed in offshore wind, that the property won’t have condos, and that there will be jobs and opportunity for residents of Salem and surrounding communities for generations.

New Bedford’s Mayor Jon Mitchell has done a superlative job of aggressively making New Bedford’s port a successful national model for offshore wind support. He is committed to “attracting investments, creating jobs, and strengthening the seaport.” He recently discussed his intentions of obtaining a lion’s share of these new port infrastructure funds saying, “What we’re trying to do is to grab as big of a piece of the pie as possible. We’re trying to get as far ahead of the pack as possible.”

Salem has enjoyed strong leadership under the Driscoll administration, and we encourage the mayor to exercise that leadership now. Currently, Salem is in the pack vying for wind resources but it should be at the front. We need to step up and get our share of the pie. We need to find our voice and let the OSW community know that Salem is on board with this emerging multibillion dollar industry. Our city was once a world class port, and it can be again. We can do this. Let’s get started.