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$20 million in federal grant money could help Conneaut reinvent its image

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Posted at 6:24 PM, Nov 10, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-10 19:04:07-05

CONNEAUT, Ohio — In a city of less than 13,000 people, anything that takes up 900 acres of the community has a big impact.

“Oh, it’s very important,” said Conneaut resident Krista Vendetti, talking about the Port of Conneaut. “For one, my dad works down there.”

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Krista Vendetti's father has worked at the Port of Conneaut for years. The flooring business she works for right now also relies on international trade to get the materials it needs.

Vendetti says he’s had consistent work for years, loading and unloading at a facility that today primarily handles iron ore being imported through Lake Erie.

The only problem is that the historic piece of American infrastructure is built for the past.

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City officials hope much of the underused land in the Port of Conneaut would be attractive to for business investment now that they have the funding for a $28 million infrastructure project.

It was constructed in the 1890’s to deliver materials to make steel from Lake Erie to Pittsburgh.

“The iron ore-handing facility at Conneaut was designed to handle 10 to 12 blast furnaces,” said CN Senior Manager of Docks Bill Kline. “We’re now handling it or two, so that leaves us quite a bit of capacity.”

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The steamer Strathcona in Conneaut Harbor on September 10, 1900.

As Pittsburgh manufacturing has declined since its peak in the 1970’s, Conneaut has noticed because the port.

“The port property, comprising of 900 acres, probably less than a fifth of that is being actively used in the ore movement,” said Conneaut City Manager Jim Hockaday.

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A majority of the Port of Conneaut isn't used right now and needs updated infrastructure to be attractive for new business investment.

That means more than 700 acres are largely unused and without modern infrastructure that could support new businesses for trade in the 21st century.

It’s not for lack of interest.

Kline says since 2019, companies have been reaching out asking about moving their operations into the Port of Conneaut.

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CN opperates the port and docks and has an office on a hill overlooking much of the 900 acres.

“A lot of it involves trucks and the truck access is limited through downtown,” said Kline.

A small underpass built in 1906 prevents large semi-trucks from getting to the port, making them navigate residential streets in Conneaut, which no one thinks is a good idea.

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This small underpass prevents large trucks to get to the Port of Conneaut, making them have to travel through residential streets.

“We have known users that want to locate in this port but require this infrastructure,” said Hockaday. “It’s hard to advocate for heavy industry to locate if it has such an adverse effect on your residential population.”

Conneaut’s answer is a $28 million plan to improve access to the port by roadway, rail, and maintain the water access.

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A $28 million project would allow the city to upgrade the infrastructure in and around the port to make it more attractive to new investment.

In October, the Department of Transportation announced it was awarding a $19,527,640 grant for the city’s project, accounting for nearly 70% of the cost.

“These federal dollars to the Port of Conneaut is going to help the overall region’s ongoing economic recovery,” said Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao.

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Secretary Chao tells News 5 some of the Department of Transportation grants were intended to help rural communities like Conneaut thrive with federal money.

“It’s an opportunity to recast that incredibly unique infrastructure to capture something else,” said Hockaday.

Already, Hockaday says there’s a company planning to use part of the new infrastructure to move their business to the Port of Conneaut while building a facility that requires rail access and would cost $200 million.

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Just outside the Port of Conneaut, the city is trying to create an entertainment in a part of the community that is only starting to see reinvestment now.

The hope is that more projects like that would follow inside the port.

Outside the highly-secured port fences, Conneaut is trying to build a new entertainment district just outside one of the Port entrances, closer to Lake Erie than the city’s historic downtown blocks. More investment within the port could mean an increasing population and demand for activities in town.

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Charlie's Deli and Catering is one of the first new businesses to move into a part of Conneaut Hockaday says is ready for new investment.

“There’s got to be stuff for them to do here and we’re building that,” said Conneaut Port Authority Chair George Peterson. “We’re going to help bring more business to the City of Conneaut.”

New businesses are already popping up next to old buildings slated for renovations.

Hockaday says he expects hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment to follow for projects like restaurants and new construction that never would have come to Conneaut without improvements to the port.

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More investment in and around the Port of Conneaut could drastically increase the number of people employed there, increasing the customer base for local restaurants.

Those businesses could be in place to serve the increased port workforce when the initial project is completed in two to three years, creating more positions for people like Krista’s dad, who wouldn’t need a college degree to raise a family.

“[They could] start their career, start their family, it’s a good retirement, good insurance,” said Vendetti.

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