The facility, referred to both as the Port of Paulsboro and the Paulsboro Marine Terminal, would be the first new terminal on the river in decades, officials said, and create as many as 2,500 jobs. Employment priority would be given to residents in the two-square-mile borough, where 29 percent of the 6,100 people live below the federal poverty line.
The state, through bonds and aid, committed $175 million to construct and prepare the facility, a project of the South Jersey Port Corp. and Gloucester County Improvement Authority (GCIA). At build-out, the cost of the project may total nearly $275 million.
But the project's completion, slowed by rough economic tides, has been delayed multiple times. The projected 2012 debut is now a 2016 hope.
"It's very concerning to me, because we've been working on this port for many years. Every time we turn around, we're waiting," said Mayor W. Jeffery Hamilton, who also works for the GCIA. "It's sad, because they keep promising the community" jobs.
Proponents say progress is on the horizon. The port, on about 190 acres where the river meets the Mantua Creek, may soon have a wharf. The GCIA accepted bids late last month.
The authority's acting administrator, George Strachan, said last week that three bids were received, adding that the authority hopes to make an award at a meeting July 17. After that, construction of the 850-linear-foot wharf, which includes one berth, will likely take from 20 to 24 months.
Officials said a change of plans - initial proposals for the first phase called for 1,500 linear feet and two berths - was not a sign that the project was scaling back, but that the model would allow additions to be tailored to tenants' needs. An added rail connection on the wharf also is expected to appeal to customers.
At least twice before, requests for bids yielded no contracts because, officials said, costs were too high, market conditions appeared unfavorable, and a potential tenant may have required a different wharf location.
That leads to the question of who will use the site.
Billed to handle bulk, break-bulk, containerized, and project cargoes, the "omniport" nearly lured Dole banana operations from the Port of Wilmington last year, but the company reached a new agreement with its current host. No tenants have yet committed.
"The global economy hasn't been cooperative," Strachan said.
Port officials maintain that parties are eyeing the site, some seriously, although none would discuss the types of companies or how soon agreements might be executed.
"We are working on something that we think will be good for Paulsboro," said Kevin Castagnola, SJPC's executive director and CEO. "They're real; they're not just pie in the sky. These are far-along discussions."
"We're looking at the facility basically to be multi-commodity," he said. "We don't want to [overlook] any opportunity that could put business in the port."
Experts say the success of such a facility rides heavily on a partnership with at least one major business, in order to attract more tenants. Companies that are "prominent, have the scale and scope to be anchors," said Alok Baveja, a Rutgers-Camden operations management professor who has studied maritime transportation.
Officials have long said the port would be a fitting spot for offshore wind manufacturers to make or assemble, then ship, infrastructure for offshore developments. Given the still-unclear future of the alternative energy source in New Jersey, that prospect is also murky.
"Wind has not materialized as we had hoped it would," said Assemblyman John J. Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a former Paulsboro mayor who has championed the port since the turn of the century. State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, also a Democrat from the county, has also been a proponent.
"I'm told that interest is developing" by potential tenants, Burzichelli said. "Activity will bring activity."
The SJPC is hopeful that an uptick in traffic at its facilities in Camden and Salem last year speaks to rebounding conditions. In 2009, the corporation's total cargo tonnage was 2.4 million short tons, but it then dropped every year to a low of 1.5 million short tons in 2012. Last year, that number was 1.8 million short tons.
"That's a significant growth," said John Martin, whose Lancaster-based consulting firm tracks the maritime industry.
Across the river, the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority, which owns a half-dozen facilities and leases to private operators, has reported four full years of growth after reaching a 10-year tonnage low in 2009. A current project deepening the Delaware from 40 feet to 45, compounded with a Panama Canal expansion that many believe could fuel cargo traffic on the East Coast, may bode well for the region's ports.
Paulsboro's wharf is being designed to withstand dredging from 40 to 45 feet, if business calls for it after the channel is deepened.
Yet the construction delays have left critics more skeptical.
"It was ill-conceived. It may not be the right place or the right area," said Larry Wallace, a former Gloucester County freeholder and Republican. "It was more of a political play than a real opportunity."
Castagnola and other port officials hold onto their confidence. "Once the world sees a wharf is being built," he said, "that will quiet some of the skepticism."
Organizers point to completed work at the site, formerly home to BP Oil and Essex Chemical operations: the clearing of tanks and remediation work at the sites, dredging 350,000 cubic yards of soil, and completing a bridge over the creek to connect truck traffic from I-295 to the port without traveling through neighborhoods.
"There are more pieces in place today for this port to come to life . . . than there were three years ago," Burzichelli said. "Would we have all preferred it would have been three years ago? Absolutely."