NEW BEDFORD — The Cannon Street Power Station, once proposed for an ocean aquarium and later a waterfront casino, will be demolished and the surrounding area cleared to develop a staging area for the coming offshore wind industry, the city announced today.

A group of investors, operating as Cannon Street Holdings LLC, plans to develop the 30-acre site primarily as an offshore wind staging area, with additional plans for a modern seafood offloading facility and a “fish-centric retail facility,” according to one of the investors.

The project will double New Bedford’s capacity for offshore wind staging, positioning the city to better compete for contracts and create hundreds of new jobs on the waterfront, developers and city officials said.

“We are trying to help improve the city’s long-term vision of the waterfront,” said Andrew Saunders, a lawyer and one of four investors involved in the project. “We hope it brings a whole new industry to the port that can live alongside the fishing industry.” 

What do you think?

The city announced that the Cannon Street Power Station — once planned for an ocean aquarium and later for a waterfront casino — has been sold to investors looking to build a second staging area for the offshore wind industry. Do you think this will benefit city residents? How important is the proposed seafood off-loading infrastructure and “fish-centric” retail facility? What’s your general reaction to the news? Let us know and we’ll include your comments in our Community Voices.

The wind-turbine staging area will be the second such industrial site on the city’s waterfront. It will join the 29-acre, state-operated New Bedford Marine Commerce Terminal, which secured a contract with both Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind last year.  

On Wednesday, city officials, environmental groups, offshore wind representatives and members of the investor group, gathered on the cracked tarmac at the foot of the Cannon Street Power Station to announce the plans for development. As gulls swarmed overhead, each speaker was framed by the facility’s worn, red brick facade.

The announcement caps a decades-long struggle to develop the industrial waterfront property, which has been polluted and “underutilized” since the former power station was decommissioned in 1992, Mayor Jon Mitchell said. The 150,000 square-foot power house, standing five-stories tall with an 80-foot smokestack, has been largely neglected ever since. 

A four-acre parcel at the site has also been carved out to be owned by the city, which has yet to determine its use. The development group will carry on pollution remediation efforts of the previous owners, Saunders said.

Architectural rendering of the planned offshore wind staging site.

In recent months, President Biden’s administration has fast tracked permitting for the offshore wind industry. Vineyard Wind received final approval in May to begin construction of its 800-megawatt offshore wind project in waters south of Martha’s Vineyard — the first large-scale offshore wind project in the country. 

New Bedford leads the pack, but it isn’t the only port in the state and nation jockeying for position in the race to house the emerging offshore wind industry. Gov. Charlie Baker recently made a proposal to expand staging facilities to Salem and Somerset. New Bedford is still the only port in the nation with a heavy-load offshore wind facility. It was designed and built to support the weight of equipment needed to assemble and load massive wind turbine parts, which can weigh up to 2,600 tons, Saunders said. 

In 2023, Vineyard Wind will begin a five-year contract to set up its onshore base at the New Marine Commerce Terminal. 

Saunders said he believes Vineyard Wind and Mayflower Wind will likely need more staging area than just the Marine Commerce Terminal. Though Cannon Street Holdings does not yet have an official contract, the development would nearly double the port’s capacity to stage offshore wind projects, Mayor Mitchell said at the news conference. 

“It makes us far more competitive,” Mitchell said. “Biden has set the 30 gigawatt goal by 2030. That represents billions of dollars of investment on the East Coast. We have spent a long time trying to position ourselves to capture as much of that investment as possible.” 

Last week, Bristol Community College announced plans to develop a former fish house, farther North on the harbor, into an offshore wind educational facility — making Wednesday’s announcement the second offshore wind development in six days.

The new development, which Saunders said will be completed in the first or second quarter of 2023, will likely bring “hundreds” of jobs to the New Bedford waterfront. The city also hopes it will have a positive impact on the commercial tax base, as well as draw other investments in the waterfront and downtown area, according to the mayor’s office.

Cannon Street Holdings is a partnership of four investors, including Saunders. Other partners are John Lees, founder of Mar-Lees Seafood; Louis Cabral, a real estate developer; and Maurice Gulson, an engineer involved with laying cable, according to Saunders.

The group has signed a purchase agreement with the former owners of the facility, Eversource and Sprague Energy. Saunders did not disclose the price of the sale in a recent interview. He said the sale price would be public when the group closes the deal toward the end of the summer. 

Under a signed letter of intent between Cannon Street Holdings and Mayor Mitchell, the city will acquire a four-acre parcel of the site for the price of $1. The city’s parcel, facing the downtown business district, will be owned and operated by the New Bedford Redevelopment Authority. Its use has yet to be determined, Mitchell said, adding that it could be a conference center, a maritime innovation center or a warehouse space. 

 The sprawling, 30-acre site is located on the waterfront along MacArthur Boulevard, just south of the Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites. The facility has been used exclusively for power generation for more than a century and has no historic use by the commercial fishing industry, according to the city. Leonard’s Wharf, which currently docks more than a dozen commercial fishing vessels, abuts the facility but is not included in the sale. 

“The site has never been integrated into the City’s $11-billion port-related economy, until now,” according to a statement from the mayor. 

COMING FRIDAY: Columnist Jack Spillane writes about the Cannon Street Power Station deal.

Commercial developers and the city have been eyeing the site for more than a decade. Previous attempts to develop the site into an aquarium and a casino both failed to secure investors. 

“The downfall of those projects was more or less the same. There wasn’t a market to support those investments,” Mayor Mitchell said. “What’s different here: there is a big market for offshore wind that is materializing, at long last.”

The city also attempted to purchase the facility from Eversource, but wasn’t able to pull together the necessary funds, Mitchell said. When private investors showed interest, the city pulled back, but continued to work with Cannon Street Holdings to ensure their interest aligned with the city’s vision for the waterfront. A letter of intent signed by the city and developers solidifies that alignment.

“We want to make sure the site works for the city,” Mitchell said. “Our entire economic development strategy is premised on taking advantage of the things we do well. What we do well here in New Bedford lays on the water … from fishing to offshore wind to other related maritime businesses.” 

The Cannon Street Power Station was New Bedford’s main source of energy for most of the 20th century. Today, the five-story, brick power house with an 80-foot smokestack, tangled in a thicket of electrical lines, transformers and rusted piping, continues to loom over the New Bedford waterfront almost three decades after it was decommissioned. Despite its condition, the power station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Mitchell said the decision to raze the building wasn’t easy, but it was necessary. 

“Historic preservation is a priority of mine, but you can’t be an absolutist about it.” he said. “If we want to have big-time investment at that site, the building has to be removed.” 

The irony isn’t lost on developers and city officials that New Bedford’s former power source will be demolished to pave the way for the new era of energy coming to SouthCoast — offshore wind.

Since the 1990s, the facility has been cited for significant contamination of soil and groundwater, according to an Eversource spokesperson. Eversource and Sprague completed a multimillion-dollar remediation effort in 2018. They also stabilized and sealed the former power house. Cannon Street Holdings plans to continue remediation efforts if necessary, Saunders said. 

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Saunders said. They will have to demolish many buildings on the site, remediate the land, rebuild bulkheads and pave the area into one large open space capable of housing miles of cable, 850-foot turbines and 350-foot blades.

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