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

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.”

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.

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.”

sept 10 1900 conneaut ahrbor pittsburg and conneaut dock co_naef and joslin.png
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.

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.

“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.

“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.

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.

“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.

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.

“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.

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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