When Edward Whitmore’s Virginia-based tug and barge company U.S. Waterways Transportation bought Buchanan Marine, the long-time shipyard at the base of the Ferry Street Bridge, not only was the yard a cluttered mess—so was the business plan.
In the past year, Whitmore’s U.S. Waterways Transportation has dispensed with barge building at the site, focusing instead on repair of the barges in his company’s fleet.
Make that 96 heavy concrete and other heavy “aggregate”-bearing vessels that ply the waters between the Hudson River and Long Island Sound.
He’s cleaned and spiffed up the yard and with bright yellow new railings and fences, and recently unveiled an environmentally secure framed structure adapted to coat and paint the barges in a manner so that the spray paint and particles stay inside the tarps rather than float across an already particle-challenged Fair Haven.
The price has been a slimming of the work force down to about 12 skilled welders and other trades folk, said Whitmore, who was in town this week to tour what he and his company refer to, internally, as “the New Haven Shipyard.”
That’s down from about 30 workers, when U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro made a visit in 2011 with a plan to provide the company more access to capital.
The company ended up selling to Whitmore less than a half a year later. At the time of sale he announced the challenge of greater focus on repair, a major “greening up,” and adhering to strict environmental protocols.
While at the time he said all the jobs were safe, that has turned out not to be the case.
Whitmore said he was pleased with the results of the new more shipshape yard, which are also visible to walkers across the Ferry Street Bridge: A spiffed up work yard that appears clean and organized, bright new paint jobs on fencing and equipment, and an uncluttered water line where the business meets the Quinnipiac.
“We’ve consolidated to a pretty good size, we’ve cleaned things up a whole lot, we want to be environmentally friendly, and have pretty steady employment,” he said Monday afternoon.
The workers are high-quality welders and fitters, with the average tenure at the company about 11 years, Whitmore added.
He said he and his team have had Dumpsters on site for two years collecting stuff. “We’ve spent a lot of time to get it extraordinarily safe and not a lot of junk [any more] lying around, and on an aggressive program for the maintenance of our equipment,” he added.
He said when he took over there was disorganization and dysfunction. He recalled that there used to be three or four barges on land and another two or three in the water, all in what is relatively a small space.
That’s all over with. Now the crew works only on barges in the the company’s fleet, and in a more systematic, environmentally careful manner. That includes tarping the areas where the painting and coating of the steel bottoms of the vessels is taking place.
“The reason those barges [in the past] are in the condition they’re in is they weren’t properly coated. You need to have a system to coat the steel with the proper paint,” and that is going on now.
“We try to do a barge every two to four weeks, we’re mostly caught up. About 12 to 18 barges maintained and repaired, that’s our [annual] goal in our facility.”
In a perfect world, he would like to provide more jobs and expand, Whitmore said. But he said to do it right in the small yard—a floating dry-dock—would require a $4 million investment. For now, that’s merely on the Buchanan wish list.