New tenant for ex-methanol plant site at Port of Tacoma?

This Port of Tacoma property between the Blair and Hylebos Waterways was proposed as the site for a methanol plant. Now the port is looking for another use for the site.
This Port of Tacoma property between the Blair and Hylebos Waterways was proposed as the site for a methanol plant. Now the port is looking for another use for the site. phaley@thenewstribune.com

A year has passed since the plan to erect the world’s largest methanol production plant on the Tacoma Tideflats folded in the face of torrid opposition, and the erstwhile plant site sits vacant.

Had the plan gone through as scheduled:

▪ China-backed Northwest Innovation Works would be toward the end of its permitting phase and looking to start construction.

▪ The Port of Tacoma would have collected more than $3 million in rent payments.

▪ Anti-fossil fuels groups — including Red Line Tacoma, now focused against Puget Sound Energy’s liquefied natural gas plant — would have been engaged in a fight on multiple fronts.

Instead, the port is looking for a new tenant to recoup its $38 million investment in buying the former Kaiser smelter site and cleaning up pollution to suit industrial reuse.

At nearly 100 acres with ocean access, the site is the largest and most valuable piece of port property not in active use. For most of the year, since Northwest Innovation Works canceled the methanol project, port officials have quietly worked to change this.

Although no lease has come up for a vote by the port’s elected commissioners, agency officials have focused on a proposed reuse of the Kaiser site to expand the nearby Wallenius Wilhelmsen vehicle-processing center.

Records obtained by The News Tribune show the prospect has been extensively studied under the cover of a confidentiality agreement, signed May 26, intended to shield discussions from public view.

In interviews this year, port officials declined to identify Wallenius Wilhelmsen as the prospective tenant.

Headquartered in Oslo, Norway, the company is a multinational vehicle delivery company that has used port facilities for more than 30 years, according to a memo from a September closed-door meeting at the port.

Wallenius Wilhelmsen operates an 8.25-acre vehicle-processing center at the port that can hold 1,200 vehicles at a time, according to the company’s website.

Details about the idea for the Kaiser site were unclear in heavily redacted documents port officials provided to fulfill a request by The News Tribune.

Representatives of the port and Wallenius Wilhelmsen declined to discuss how much rent might be paid for the site. Wallenius Wilhelmsen spokeswoman Inna Getselis said the discussions are preliminary.

A draft study prepared for the Northwest Seaport Alliance by Moffatt & Nichol Engineers of Seattle evaluated the site and its associated frontage on the Blair Waterway. It said the site could accommodate an automobile-processing terminal with a capacity of about 100,000 cars a year. An average ship holds 1,350 cars, the study says.

Using the land to expand the port’s vehicle shipping fits with the Northwest Seaport Alliance’s goal of diversifying the port’s cargo services, Bari Bookout, the port’s chief commercial officer for noncontainer business, said in a February interview.

She added that port officials want to show sensitivity to popular sentiment that arose against the methanol project. Any proposal, she said, would get two public readings before commissioners voted on it.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the community about other types of uses that have been considered for that site under previous requests for proposal,” Bookout said, “and so anything that we’re considering, we want to be extra careful before we will even consider it.

“Obviously, any business we want to do at that site, before we sign a long-term agreement with anyone, will go through that process,” she added.

The situation remains behind-the-scenes for now.

Port staff members remain in negotiations over the site’s use with no definite timeline for when the issue might come up for a public vote, agency spokeswoman Tara Mattina said Monday.

Port records obtained this week show two possible schedules for using the site were discussed over email in August.

The “standard” timeline says that if port commissioners authorized the project this month over the course of two meetings, construction of the auto facility could be complete in August 2018.

That’s about the time Northwest Innovation Works planned to break ground on its second phase of the methanol plant.

The “expedited” timeline, which makes no mention of commission meetings, says the construction work could be done four months sooner.

Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693, @dcnunnally

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