Back in 2000, what was then the Port of Prescott was seen as a white elephant by its federal operators, something to cast off if at all possible as part of a national divestiture program of aging marine and air ports.
Located in Edwardsburgh/Cardinal Township – which includes Spencerville and the St. Lawrence Seaway communities of Johnstown and Cardinal – council of the day at first turned down an opportunity to buy the sprawling operation anchored by a massive, aging grain elevator.
But opportunity knocked again and this time Edwardsburgh/Cardinal answered. Negotiations were launched and the feds sweetened the pot with $3 million in trust and funds. The story goes, recalled current Edwardsburgh/Cardinal mayor Pat Sayeau, the deal was finalized for a $10 purchase price and $50 to register.
What was eventually renamed Port of Johnstown to better reflect its location became a lucrative municipal property operated by a management committee chaired by Sayeau.
In recent times, millions of tri-government dollars have been invested in improved dockage and storage facilities including a major $36-million overhaul. In response, the port has been delivering elephant-sized annual paydays with some profits going towards keeping down the general Edwardsburgh/Cardinal tax rate and supporting community improvement projects.
For several years, the port has been picking up part of the financing tab on the municipality’s Ingredion Centre in Cardinal. Among projects funded in 2020 were baseball dugouts, a dog park, playground equipment, and ATV trail groomer. In 2021, the port is offering up to $75,000 in community project capital funding.
Agricultural, transportation supply chains
As the latest year-end review prepared by the port’s general manager, Robert Dalley, confirms, 2020 kept up the profitable pace.
While COVID-19 made it “a year like no other,” Dalley reported the third-highest cargo volume on record, a total of close to 1.3 million tons through the complex – 62 per cent of it marine, 37 per cent trucking and one per cent by rail.
As a result, the port realized a net surplus of close to $4 million on revenues of $8.5 million in a year of global pandemic and related shutdowns, Dalley said. That compares to a 2019 surplus of about $3.5 million. Surpluses are directed into capital improvements.
Port of Johnstown: Marine cargo
The landmark port close to the international bridge into New York State features elevator, freighter, rail and truck loading and unloading services, and ever-increasing grain storage now totaling 180,000 tons, including nine steel bins installed along Highway 2. The port has remained open during the pandemic to accommodate transportation and agricultural sectors, helping to support critical supply chains.
Road salt distributed to municipalities across Eastern Ontario continued to account for a significant portion of the tonnage crossing through the port (see sidebar), along with corn, soybeans and wheat.
The port faced a challenge in 2020 with a relatively slow pace of outgoing soybeans. Low prices meant soybean producers were in no hurry to sell, so brokers didn’t immediately book vessels. When prices started to climb, beans ended up sitting in storage. Arrival of sufficient vessels was about a month late with, at one point, about 90,000 tons in storage at the port.
The port also saw one load of steel last year, most of it rails destined for Ottawa’s rapid transit system.
Several capital improvements were undertaken in 2020 for a total investment of $4.2 million, notably nine new ship loading spouts, replacement of rail ties, completion of a 16,000-ton storage bin, dust collection system improvements, new conveyor belt, new utility vehicle, and new eavestroughs and heat cables.
While 2021 will continue to be challenging, Dalley has no doubt the determination of those in the sectors in question will remain high and “we’ll adapt and overcome any obstacles that lie ahead.”
As for the mayor, he’s proud that his municipality has been able to make a silk purse out of an installation once widely dismissed as a sow’s ear.