Tribe Makes Huge Port Deal Riverboat casino site new home for container ships

By May 2, 2007Articles

Where once there was a casino, cranes will rise, and the original Emerald Queen riverboat will be replaced by oceangoing container ships.

The Puyallup Tribe of Indians announced Monday an agreement with Seattle-based SSA Marine to develop a 180-acre shipping container terminal along the eastern shore of the Blair Waterway in Tacoma’s Tideflats.

The proposed terminal would be the biggest – and most expensive – in the port. It also would be the only container terminal not owned by the Port of Tacoma.
“This partnership will benefit the entire region,” said Herman Dillon, chairman of the tribe, on Monday. “Several thousand high-paying jobs will be created, and the container shipping volume of the port will be significantly expanded. The partnership between SSA and the Puyallup Tribe reaffirms the tribe’s commitment to economic development.”

The deal was negotiated through the tribe’s economic development arm, Marine View Ventures.
SSA Marine, the largest U.S.-owned terminal operator, will design and construct the $300 million development and then operate the terminal.

This would be the company’s first terminal operation in Tacoma, though it has worked at the port for years providing stevedoring services for Totem Ocean Trailer Express and handling a variety of noncontainerized cargo from cars to lumber. SSA operates the largest terminal at the Port of Seattle – Terminal 18 – as well as terminals in California and around the world.

The company set the stage for Monday’s announcement last year when it purchased 52 acres of industrial land adjacent to the tribe’s 128-acre property on the Blair Waterway. As part of the latest agreement, SSA Marine will transfer ownership of that property to the tribe, which will then enter into a long-term lease agreement with the company. Neither the tribe nor the privately held SSA released financial details of the lease.
The Port of Tacoma leases its waterfront property to shipping lines and terminal operators. Its most recent agreement – signed in 2005 – leases terminal property for $89,000 per acre per year. The port’s executive director Tim Farrell said that’s now considered low, because construction costs have increased.

Tribal spokesman John Weymer said that tribe would apply to add the 52 acres into trust status. SSA Marine purchased the property last year for $11.7 million, according to Pierce County Assessor records. The company will be responsible for the environmental cleanup of the site before it grants it to the tribe.

The port owns 130 acres of property – including the former Kaiser site – adjacent to the tribe’s port land. The port and tribe have been discussing development of the Blair Waterway properties and the potential for a mega-terminal for the past few years.

Port of Tacoma commissioner Ted Bottiger said the port hadn’t met with the tribe in a few months and that at one point the port and SSA Marine were going to put together an offer for the tribe.
“We would keep the door open to a three-way partnership, but we wouldn’t wait (to develop the port property),” Bottiger said. “This is business, and nobody wins if the land stays vacant.”
Commission President Connie Bacon said the deal is good for the region and ensures the property will be used for maritime commerce.

“We’ve all been trying to find a way to negotiate with the tribe,” she said. “If this is the way to make the land available for shipping, then that’s a good thing.”
Farrell said the port will continue to pursue the development of container terminals on the Blair Waterway.

Bob Watters, vice president and director of business development for SSA Marine, said the company is already talking to potential customers.

“The growth in the Pacific Northwest is doing quite well and has been quite dramatic,” he said. “We’re quite confident that we’ll be able to attract customers down there.”

The proposed container terminal will include two ship berths. The facility will extend across Alexander Avenue and offer space for the storage and transfer of shipping containers. Watters expects construction to take four to five years.

The tribe received its land as part of a 1988 land claims settlement negotiated with local, state and federal government.

“This agreement has been 25 years in the making,” said Bill Sterud, a member of the tribal council and one of the leaders in the settlement negotiations. “We had a vision back then of the potential of what the port property could be. With this agreement, we are continuing to move down the roads of cooperation and opportunity.”

Weymer said the tribe has long sought to develop the property. “This has not been an overnight venture,” he said. “We’ve had companies from as far away as China looking at possible development of the property.”

The deal has been agreed to in principle, and signatures will be affixed to contracts within 90 days, Weymer said. The parties will celebrate with a groundbreaking ceremony within the next few months, they said.
Meanwhile, the riverboat – which is still for sale – will leave the Blair Waterway. Brought to Tacoma in 1997, the original Emerald Queen served gamblers until it was closed in 2005, after the tribe moved its casino operations elsewhere.