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January 23, 2020
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Evan Matthews is executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority, a quasi-public state agency based in Old Saybrook. 

Photo by Becky Coffey/Harbor News

Evan Matthews is executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority, a quasi-public state agency based in Old Saybrook. (Photo by Becky Coffey/Harbor News | Buy This Photo)

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Matthews Sees Strong Ports Aiding Connecticut Business

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The State of Connecticut is planning a maritime renaissance at its three deepwater ports, and to put that plan into action created the Connecticut Port Authority, basing the operation in Old Saybrook and naming Evan Matthews, an experienced port manager, its executive director in 2016. A stunning health setback slowed down the hard-charging executive, but he’s back at the helm with a new perspective and new optimism for the possibilities the waterfront has for fueling statewide economic growth.

With three deep-water ports—Bridgeport, New Haven, and New London—and increasingly scarce federal funds to support harbor maintenance projects, state leaders recognized that the state would have to step in with funding and resources to keep the state’s important maritime economy strong, so in 2014 the Connecticut Legislature created the quasi-public Connecticut Port Authority.

By assigning to the new authority ownership of a key state maritime asset, the State Pier facility in New London, within a few years, the legislature hoped it could become financially self-sufficient.

Major improvements were first needed to upgrade the State Pier, a 30-acre cargo port facility with two warehouses, an office building, a 20-acre lay-down area, and two parallel thousand-foot long piers. To fund the work, two years ago the newly appointed Connecticut Port Authority’s 15-member Board of Directors, consisting of state officials, community leaders, port authority professionals, and individuals with knowledge related to trade, marine transportation, and finance, sought and received $4.5 million from the State Bond Commission for the project.

The State Legislature also agreed to provide the Port Authority with a $400,000 appropriation for each of the first three years as seed money to support the operations until more revenue could be generated from an upgraded State Pier. The legislature and the Bond Commission also provided the funding for the authority to complete the dredging of the Housatonic River and $4 million to support grants for small-harbor improvement projects.

The board members realized that they alone couldn’t manage the authority. They needed a professional manager and staff to oversee the port projects and continue to support and strengthen the state’s maritime economy. The board, chaired by Deputy Secretary of the State Scott Bates, hired Evan in September 2016 to build authority operations from scratch. Together, they decided to locate the authority’s headquarters offices not in Hartford but on the shoreline, choosing to lease space in Old Saybrook at Saybrook Station.

Evan worked hard in his first months on the job to organize the office, hire staff, get an accounting system up and running, until an unexpected tragedy struck.

While Evan was at home, reading alongside his wife, he started having sudden symptoms and his wife cried out in panic that he was having a stroke. Within 20 minutes, he was in the hospital emergency room.

“I had a brain aneurysm [that burst]. They still don’t know why it happened,” says Evan. “I was very lucky that I was at home with my wife and got to the hospital so quickly.”

Evan’s rehabilitation process has been slow but steady as he gradually regains the motor skills he lost. As time passes, he continues to build new neural pathways that bypass the damaged ones.

“Improvement continues, but it is gradual. I still have some weakness in one hand and one leg,” says Evan.

Asked how the near-death experience changed him, he says, “I lost 30 pounds. And alcohol affects me differently now, so I drink much less. I do yoga—the most lasting impact of the stroke is that my nervous system is not finely tuned with my muscles, so the stretching helps my flexibility.

“But most important, I just appreciate life now—it gave me perspective,” he says. “Before, it was the stress. I was trying to do everything myself, going 100 miles an hour, starting the Port Authority from scratch. Now I have more staff to rely on and I am able to delegate.”

Instead of sailing, an activity he loved but that hand weakness now makes difficult, he paddles through Connecticut’s quiet coves and estuaries in a canoe with his wife.

His recent return to work was a major achievement and a milestone marking the success of his recovery. Even more important from Evan’s perspective is that he was able to watch his daughter graduate from high school this month, a family event that his aneurysm nearly snatched away from him.

Now that he’s back at work, Evan is focused on achieving the authority’s goals. That means finishing the State Pier upgrade project and completing this year’s bid process to find a new State Pier operator. The state contract with the pier’s current operator, Logistec, expires in January 2019. Under the current deal, Logistec pays the Connecticut Port Authority a base rent plus a portion of assessable revenue as set by a formula. Evan is optimistic that the Port Authority will be able to negotiate a better deal with a new operator and an upgraded facility.

Other port infrastructure projects that could spur economic development include a proposed rehabilitation of Fort Trumbull’s Pier 7 so it can be used by Navy and cruise ship docking.

“That would be a home run,” says Evan. “The more financially sustainable we become, the more money we can use for economic development in the maritime sector.”

Evan sees reason for optimism in Connecticut’s maritime future.

“Connecticut relies on the Port of New York/New Jersey, but that port will become increasingly congested, so it’s incumbent on Connecticut through the Port Authority to create different options for Connecticut companies to shorten the supply chain—barge feeder services, inter-modal container terminals by rail—and dredging to maintain the harbors is an important part of our mission,” says Evan. “Tankers come into Connecticut, but if they are fully loaded, they cannot come into the harbor, so they have to be offloaded at anchorage, which costs money [and adds spill risk]. In Connecticut, every harbor is at the head of a river and they all will silt-in. Connecticut has to dredge or it will go out of business.”

Evan began his career working in environmental consulting for the firm Booz Allen Hamilton. Then it was on to work with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, where he got his captain’s license before returning home to Rhode Island to work for Save the Bay. He wanted to move into port management, however, so he moved to Seattle to earn a master’s degree in marine affairs management. With that in hand, he was able to return to the East Coast and work for 13 years for Quonset Development managing the Port of Davisville, Rhode Island. From that post, he joined the Connecticut Port Authority as its first executive director.

“Becoming executive director of the Connecticut Port Authority allowed me to do port work all day long,” says Evan who is excited to turn his focus to building and supporting Connecticut’s marine economy and improving port infrastructure to further strengthen it.


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