Dueling proposals compete for federal money to build security center at Richmond port

City Council officials will decide tonight whether to halt federal grant-funded project to convert a building into a port security center.

Councilman Tom Butt has for weeks raised concerns about whether the money would be better spent doing the same thing in a nearby structure.

Butt says the city’s port operations have devolved into a “boondoggle” and that the city should reconsider port officials’ original plan, for which they received nearly $4 million in federal funding.

  • See the port’s balance sheet by clicking here: balancesheet

At Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council is scheduled to hear three basic options: To stick with the original plan to build the security and operations center at 1411 Harbour Way South, to wait for the results of a roughly $50,000 study to assess the feasibility of putting the site at the Riggers Loft building instead, or to cancel all bids on the original site, which city staff recently recommended.

  • See tonight’s agenda by clicking here: Agenda

Butt’s preference is to explore the feasibility of rehabilitating the Riggers Loft to house the security center. Port officials obtained a $3.7 million grant several years ago to create the center at 1411 Harbour Way South, a three-story building that served as a control tower and, later, as the port’s former headquarters. In recent weeks, Butt has repeatedly criticized the port and its leadership in public comments and on his influential e-forum newsletter.

“The feds had a lot of money they wanted to shove out the door,” Butt said. “So the port put together a simple grant application. But it’s for a bad building. It’s a bad project.”

Butt added, “Either option two or three would stop the current project, so I am for either.”

Butt says the Harbour Way building is in poor condition, obsolete and would not bring the additional leasing and historic benefits that Riggers Loft could.

But others disagree, noting that the Riggers Loft building at Terminal 3 is not centrally-located within the port’s grounds and is itself in a state of disrepair.

“We have spent almost $500,000 of grant money on plans for our port office and security center on Harbour Way,” said Councilman Nat Bates. “And now Tom wants to shift to Terminal 3, which nobody wants but him. It will probably cost a lot more over there.”

Councilman Corky Booze also opposes Butt’s efforts. “Butt is trying to micromanage the port on this,” Booze said. “When he gets fixated on something, he doesn’t care who he has to run over to get his way.”

Butt said Bates and others are just “grasping at straws.”

“What matters isn’t whether it is centrally-located, but where we get the most for the money,” Butt said. “There is no sense in throwing good money after bad.”

Executive port Director Jim Matzorkis, who returned to the city Monday after a trip courting car importers in China, declined to address Butt’s accusations that he has run the port inefficiently, but did dispute Butt’s assertion that he was unwilling to consider the councilman’s proposal for Riggers Loft.

“I indicated to (Butt) that I am willing to contemplate and figure out what’s best for the port and the city,” Matzorkis said. Matzorkis declined to say which option he prefers, although he and his staff originally submitted their grant application for 1411 Harbour Way South. “It’s a council policy decision,” Matzorkis said.

For years the Richmond Port was underutilized and operated at a deficit. With new contracts to import cars from overseas, the port has offset its debt services and other expenses, virtually breaking even, according to City Manager Bill Lindsay. Some observers think the port will produce net profits for the city over the next decade.

But while investments in infrastructure have produced results – the port is often blanketed with thousands of imported cars poised for distribution – an audit commissioned by Lindsay and published last year was critical of port management, and recommended sweeping reforms of record keeping, management structure, resource uses and other policies.

Lindsay and Matzorkis said the port benefitted from the audit, and has made many improvements in response to the findings. “We have gotten a lot of projects at the port in the last five to 10 years,” Matzorkis said. “We’ve brought the port a long way, and the success is an ongoing effort.”

Among Butt’s supporters for shifting the resources to Riggers Loft are leaders and supporters of the National Park Service, the Rosie the Riveter Trust and the Richmond Museum Association, all of whom favor restoring Richmond’s historic port infrastructure. The 26,000-square-foot Riggers Loft was built during WWII, and if rehabilitated would have plenty of space for other uses, including private leases.

Butt acknowledged that the assessment for which he won funding at last week’s council meeting could find Riggers Loft unsuitable for the security and operations center. Still, Butt was steadfast that the Harbour Way location is the wrong choice.

“If Riggers Loft doesn’t work for some reason, they’d be better off tearing [1411 Harbour Way South] down and building a whole new building,” he said.

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