Lessenberry: Port of Monroe tugging economy forward

By Jack Lessenberry

Special to the Toledo Blade, 6/13/24

MONROE — Paul C. LaMarre III, the director of the Port of Monroe, loves tugboats. He photographs them, does vivid paintings of them, pilots them, and restores them.

Late last month, he took me out into Lake Erie and pointed at the New York, a new, multideck tug which looked like it could haul an island across the ocean. But as we set out, he gazed fondly down at his pride and joy, a comparatively tiny tug named America.

“Built in 1897,” he said, beaming down at the ship’s bright red pilot house. “Oldest working tug on the Great Lakes,” he said, still working, that is, because of all the time he’s spent restoring her.

What he doesn’t say is that in a very real sense, Mr. LaMarre is a tugboat himself — a human tugboat that has pulled millions into Monroe’s economy, and revitalized a port which a dozen years ago was almost dead.

Back in 2012, the port, such as it was, mainly functioned as a place where coal was brought in to power a nearby utility. It hadn’t had a port director since 1978. Then, Paul LaMarre, who had been manager of maritime affairs for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, was hired, and immediately began revitalizing it.

Mr. LaMarre, who was only 31 when he took the job, was no stranger to challenge on air, land, or sea. Twenty years ago, he was a U.S. Navy pilot, screaming across the skies in supersonic F-18 Hornet attack fighters. When he came back, he worked as a deck officer on ships, earned a degree in marine transportation, and then came to Toledo, where he took over the deserted old freighter that had been the Willis P. Boyer, restored her original name, and renovated her into today’s gleaming museum ship, the James M. Schoonmaker.

“Carty [Finkbeiner, the former Toledo mayor] gave me hell and said, ‘get this rusting old ship out of here!’” he laughed, but Mr. LaMarre doesn’t give up easily. In the end, the ship became the main attraction for the National Museum of the Great Lakes, and he was named a marine historical society’s historian of the year.

Monroe, however, was daunting. Within a few years, he’d managed to clean the place up, apply for grants, and begin attracting more cargo to Michigan’s only port on Lake Erie, which was soon being rebranded as the “Biggest Little Port on Lake Erie.”

Mr. LaMarre’s life, apart from his wife, Julie, and their two golden retrievers, is the port. But he is also a talented videographer with a gift for marketing, and misses no chance to tell his port’s story. People began to notice. U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, a fellow former naval officer, began paying attention soon after he was first elected in 2014.

In October, 2022, he announced an $11 million grant to improve the port’s infrastructure. “This funding will expand cargo capacity, increase economic activity for the region and strengthen supply chains,” he then said. That it did, but the Port of Monroe was already on a roll; in a decade, it had won an annual award for the most increased tonnage by any Great Lakes port seven times.

How much has this helped the surrounding community and Monroe County, which is not one of the more affluent in the state? An economic analysis by Martin Associates in Lancaster, Pa. found that in 2022, total economic activity created by the port was $85 million, including 520 jobs directly generated by the cargo and vessel activity at the marine terminals at the port.

Those, in turn led to more jobs created or supported in the regional economy by activity at the port, all of which generated $8.4 million in state and local tax revenue.

But what irks those at the port is that they feel they could do so much more if they weren’t being blatantly discriminated against by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency, which had been allowing Detroit and other ports to accept shipments of international maritime containers — but not Monroe.

Gregg Ward, the Port of Monroe’s international trade specialist, said “this was clearly the influence of Moroun,” the family that owns the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit, and who largely control the Port of Detroit, thanks to a sweetheart deal made with Detroit’s later disgraced and imprisoned mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick.

However, Senator Peters, who chairs a Senate subcommittee on ports, has pledged to “keep fighting to make sure the Port is treated fairly.” And late last year, another former U.S. Navy officer came to visit and spent much of a day touring the port: Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. “We aren’t political and we don’t take sides, but that was something,” said Paul LaMarre. “It wasn’t like a normal political visit. He was interested in everything.”

So, what’s next? Sam Hankinson, the port development coordinator, put it this way: “The future is unwritten, but when it is, Paul LaMarre will be the one holding the pen.”

Jack Lessenberry is a former national editor for The Blade. Contact him at: omblade@aol.com


The original story was published in the Toledo Blade and on Mr. Lessenberry’s personal site, Lessenberry Ink.

Lessenberry: Port of Monroe tugging economy forward | The Blade (toledoblade.com)

The Biggest Local Economic Success Story You Never Knew – Lessenberry Ink

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