- Associated Press - Saturday, May 31, 2014

SALISBURY, Md. (AP) - It’s a sobering threat to the future of business in Wicomico County: the end of federal dredging of the Wicomico River.

For decades, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has invested millions of dollars in the river’s upkeep.

Without it, the river would get choked with silt in a matter of years. Only the most modest of vessels would be left to navigate its waters, and several businesses and hundreds of jobs would find themselves in serious jeopardy.

The stream of federal aid is at risk of running dry if the amount of freight hauled on the river drops below a five-year average of 1 million tons a year.

The future is now - the river’s users have failed to reach 1 million tons for three out of the past five years. Fearing the worst, several county leaders say something must be done to reverse the trend or Maryland’s second-largest port could be forced to close.

That something, they suggest, is a new county-run port.

“We’ve talked for as long as I’ve been here how great an asset the port is, and what have we done for it over the last 20 years?” asked County Administrator Wayne Strausburg at a recent public hearing before the County Council. “There needs to be some vision.”

The plan outlined by Strausburg and Public Works Director Lee Beauchamp at that time was little more than a sketch: The county would acquire land in the industrial area on the north end of the river and lease port space to businesses that otherwise couldn’t afford to build a port of their own.

Cost hasn’t been discussed, but it almost certainly require local officials to pony up millions of dollars even after accounting for state and federal grants.

The county made its first substantial investment in May, with the County Council setting aside $26,500 toward hiring a consultant. The Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development is chipping in a matching amount.

Martin Associates is expected to use that money to draw up a strategic plan. It has written similar plans for several other ports, including the Port of Baltimore.

It’s likely going to take 10 weeks for the consultant to finish the report once it gets started and multiple years before a port gets built, if the project gets that far. But the early reviews, particularly from businesses, are enthusiastic.

Tim Emge is vice president of terminal operations for Cato Gas & Oil, which barges petroleum products up the river. He also serves on the board of directors of Delmarva Water Transport Committee, a 40-year-old nonprofit that is the closest thing the river has to a port authority.

A new county port would have little effect on Cato’s operations, but he said he supports anything that helps assure the future of river navigation.

“This could be a prime hub still and continue to be for prime materials like sand to be shipped out of Salisbury, instead of stuff always coming in,” Emge said.

Story Continues →