The Star Beacon; Ashtabula, Ohio

January 8, 2013

Winter in Ashtabula?

Jefferson man thinks docks just the right medicine for local economy

By CARL E. FEATHER - cfeather@starbeacon.com
Star Beacon

ASHTABULA —  Most Ashtabula County residents who have gray hair can recall a time when the harbor’s winter landscape was one of lake freighters packed into slips for winter lay-up maintenance and repairs.

That’s a sight that Joseph Craine of Jefferson would like to restore to the harbor. Craine, owner of Lake Erie Ship Repair and Fabrication, said the work goes to Toledo, Lorain, Cleveland and Erie, Pa., when it should be in Ashtabula.

“Ashtabula left the marine industry slide out of here,” says Craine, who drives to Cleveland to work on vessels.

“Toledo and Cleveland are loaded with boats,” Craine said.

He feels that the city is literally missing the boat on 75 to 80 jobs, as well as the money spent on supplies necessary to complete the repairs.

According to the Lake Carriers’ Association in Rocky River, more than 1,200 boilermakers, welders, electricians and other skilled craftsmen will be involved in maintaining and modernizing U.S-flagged Great Lakes freighters this winter. Total investment in the 56 vessels in this fleet is expected to be around $75 million.

The lay-up season began in late December. The Carriers’ Association lists Sturgeon Bay and Superior, Wisc.; Erie, Pa.; and Toledo as the major lay-up ports on U.S. sides of the lakes. Smaller “top-side” repair operations are located in Cleveland, Buffalo and several Michigan cities.

Craine said “top-side” work is his company’s specialty, and it is work that could be done at docks in the Ashtabula River during a time the river is not used for  recreational boating.

“It’s crazy,” he says of the long drive he has to make from a county that has some of the best ports on the lower lakes. “All I need is the empty dock and the power (an electrical connection from shore).”

The Carriers’ Association estimates that a vessel generates $800,000 in economic activity in the community in which it winters. Craine said he would like to put two freighters at the CSX Railroad dock and two at the Pinney Dock in the Ashtabula River. That would bring in $3.2 million in a matter of a couple months.

Ashtabula City Manager James Timonere said the city is interested in attracting this industry, but in the seven years he’s been involved in economic development in Ashtabula, there has been only one inquiry from a fleet owner.

“We’d love to get it back, especially now that the channel has been dredged,” Timonere said. “The question is how much more capacity c an the market support and is this an area where we can help them out?”

Pinney Dock, owned by Kinder Morgan, owns the majority of the dock spaces that could be used for this kind of work. Joe Hollier, manager of corporate communications for Kinder Morgan, said vessel repair and maintenance are beyond the scope of the company’s Ashtabula operation.

“(Pinney Dock) is a bulk facility,” Hollier said. “It’s not in any way, shape or form the type of dock that would be able to handle that kind of repair work.

“There is so much that would have to be done, and it’s not part of our business,” he added.

Craine said his company would bring in all necessary equipment. “All I need is (electrical power) from shore, and I would hope the city would help me with that,” he said.

Historically, having a shipbuilder on the river was the key to Ashtabula attracting vessels for winter lay-up. Glenn Beagle, assistant director of the Ashtabula Maritime and Surface Transportation Museum, said that Great Lakes Engineering Works, which was located up river from the lift bridge, was the major player. Geary Boiler Works also operated on the river. However, as the vessels got longer, they could no longer negotiate the curve in the river and therefore could not reach the Great Lakes Engineering shipyard.

Great Lakes Engineering built four ore carriers during World War II, but its business declined steadily after the war as vessels got longer and their maintenance work required more spacious and specialized facilities. The former shipyard was sold in the 1960s and now hosts a recreational marina.

Further, every five years, U.S.-flagged vessel owners are required to put their vessel into dry dock. U.S. Coast Guard inspectors scour the hull for any signs of unusual wear; if any is found, the steel is replaced. Ashtabula does not have those kind of facilities for that work, which involves pumping the water out of the slip while the vessel settles on huge concrete blocks positioned at key locations.

The human factor plays a role in where this work goes, as well.

Ashtabula was once was home to many Great Lakes captains and engineers, and Beagle said their residency would sway the decision to winter a vessel in Ashtabula. The men could conveniently walk to their freighter and oversee the progress while still enjoying the comforts of home and family in the evening. To his knowledge, however, no Great Lakes captains reside in the city.

Craine said he’s very interested in working with the city and county officials to bring this industry to the harbor. All he needs is the dock space a little enthusiasm for the concept.

“I have everything I need to do the work; I just need to lease dock space,” he said.

A list of vessels and the ports where they are spending winter lay-up is available online at www.boatnerd.com/layup/layup12-13.htm.