Andrew Saunders has been around the New Bedford waterfront all his life. He was a scalloper when he was a young man, and later worked for many years as a lawyer with maritime and maritime support industry clients.
His background also includes 10 years spent as the in-house counsel for the Cashman Equipment Corp. in Boston, an international barge and marine contracting company.
Saunders’ four-person group’s plan to purchase and rehab the old Cannon Street power plant would be the culmination of that harborside career. A big win for both himself and the city if they can pull it off.
Saunders, 58, a chip from one of the city’s most influential political families, talks about it in simple business terms.
“We think the market is there,” he said.
With the Biden administration’s greenlighting offshore wind permits in a way the Trump administration never did, he said the time is right.
The plan, announced first in The New Bedford Light, is to devote most of the 29-acre site as a staging area for offshore wind and long-term construction or maintenance operations for it.
“There is a definite market for such a facility and because of the market we think our project will succeed,” he said.
That’s what Saunders and Mayor Jon Mitchell are pitching is the difference between this deal and the other two mega-projects pitched for the Cannon site over the last two decades — an oceanarium and a casino. This one, they say, will be a go because there is already a market for the turbine industry in the state’s contracts with two turbine companies.
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.
In order to win the city’s backing for the project, Cannon Street gave them what they wanted.
They agreed to devote a portion of the Cannon site for a modern seafood offloading facility where the public could view the fishing boats as they purchase fresh fish. That was one of the Mitchell administration’s demands in the negotiation — both the mayor and Saunders said.
“People can actually see how the fishing boats offload,” Saunders said.
The city got a lot of what it wanted in this deal.
One of the biggest wins was the four acres nearest to the Route 18 side of the property being conveyed to the city for a buck, according to the plan. Maybe the city eventually gets a conference center out of that.
Asked why Cannon Street would sell such valuable property to the city so cheaply, Saunders said that was the city’s price for bowing out of the competition. That and the city’s rights to control certain aspects of the development.
“We were preparing to sell it to them. They said ‘No, we don’t want to buy it. We want you to give it to us. If you give it to us, we will enter this letter of intent — you’ll do certain things, we’ll support your project.”
It was a compromise, Saunders said. “It was good for them and good for us.”
Cannon Street Power Station will be demolished and the surrounding area cleared to develop a staging area for the coming offshore wind industry.
The Mitchell administration wanted to do certain aspects of the commercial part of the project itself — particularly a so-called green marine energy incubator, according to both the mayor and Saunders. The city had done a lot of work in planning, changing the harbor master plan, Saunders said. “They invested a lot of money. We respected that and felt it was a good business deal from our perspective,” he said.
The uses the city is considering putting those four acres to — possibly a conference center and even a parking garage near the Fairfield Inn, a green marine energy incubator, an office building — were compatible with the wind and seafood terminals, according to Saunders, though he said he had not heard about the garage.
Mitchell may have been bluffing with Cannon Street but he held some good cards. In the end, he said the city understood it probably could not get financing for such a big project itself and deferred to the private group.
The mayor said he’s been allowed to see some of the private financing and he believes it is solid. “I talked to Saunders about some of the financing in confidence,” he said.
It is not Cannon Street’s financing but the wind companies’ financing that will be crucial, he said. “The question isn’t whether they can finance, it’s how quickly the wind companies will finance the improvements,” he said, referring to the significant investment that will have to be made rebuilding the bulkhead and pier so they can support the ships and turbine components.
Cannon Street has said it is already in discussions with the wind companies.
For his part, Saunders is not tipping his hand on Cannon Street’s financing, or on the purchase price, until the deal is done.
“We have a development plan to finance this with private money. We’re not looking for public sector money. We don’t think it exists at this point in time,” he said.
Saunders, the managing partner, has worked with the other three partners before — John Lees, a former principal of Mar-Lees Seafood; Lou Cabral, a former aide to Congressman Peter Blute, a longtime employee of the Massachusetts Port Authority, and a vice president of Stoughton-based Conroy Development Corp.; and Maurice Gulson, a construction project manager with Dominion Energy with experience in offshore development. They all bring different areas of expertise needed by the development. “We’ve known each for quite some time,” Saunders said. “We all have certain skill sets that we bring to the table.”
At least one of them, John Lees, got the attention of Mitchell when he was thinking about the group’s ability to finance the development.
“John Lees is well capitalized,” he said.
Saunders declined to answer how much money they expect to make over the course of owning the terminal, beyond saying it’s a for-profit, private venture. “That’s confidential private business information at this juncture,” he said.
Cannon Street has set an ambitious timetable for taking down the majority of the old power company’s buildings on the site and making it ready for the wind companies. The first or second quarter of 2023.
Asked what his vision for the future of the waterfront is, Saunders doesn’t talk in terms of theoreticals. Rather he lays out the fact that offshore wind is coming to the United States, and New Bedford is the nearest port to the Vineyard Wind turbines. The Eversource site has long been an energy, not a fishing facility, he said. He also noted that the wind industry will use all sorts of Port of New Bedford support industries, such as mom-and-pop mechanics, hydraulics companies, marine survey companies, marine insurance brokers and so on.
He is not, however, afraid to address some of the fears about the wind industry present in the city’s signature industry, fishing.
“We’re taking an underutilized portion of the waterfront that has been used for energy purposes for the last century and trying to repurpose that,” he said. “We’re not trying to repurpose other portions of the South Terminal or the North Terminal to do this. We think we can work in harmony.”
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