Port of Gulfport plans to expand - WDAM-TV 7-News, Weather, Sports-Hattiesburg, MS

Port of Gulfport plans to expand

GULFPORT, Miss. (AP) - The Port of Gulfport has big plans for

expansion, but even at its current size and with a slumping

economy, the port already has put itself in a position to be the

benefactor of a future business boom.

A shift in trade patterns began several years ago when many Gulf

Coast ports tweaked operations and drifted away from a specific

type of cargo, choosing instead to handle mostly containerized and

break-bulk cargo - goods that can be boxed or fastened to a pallet

and usually need to be lifted from a vessel by crane.

Meantime, industry executives say another method of shipping is

slowly being squeezed out and a few smaller ports along the Gulf

are seizing the opportunity.

Some ports, such as Houston and Tampa, Fla., still handle a

variety of cargo types, but many major ports are decreasing their

capacity for "ro-ro" cargo - goods that can be rolled on and

rolled off a vessel. This has allowed smaller ports, such as

Gulfport and Galveston, Texas, to put a heavy emphasis on that

trade.

"One of the things that maritime shipping companies look for

when they look at ports is what type of cargo a port can handle,"

said Don Allee, executive director of the Port of Gulfport. "We

are at a great advantage because we can do both."

Before Hurricane Katrina the Port of New Orleans handled several

ro-ro vessels, including several calls a month from Wallenius

Wilhelmsen Logistics and National Shipping Company of Saudi Arabia.

WWL has since consolidated its services at Galveston and NSCSA

has moved its ro-ro services to Atlantic ports. Matt Gresham, a

spokesman for the Port of New Orleans, said his port hopes to

eventually bring ro-ro vessels back.

On the other side of Gulfport, the Port of Mobile still handles

ro-ro cargo on occasion; port spokeswoman Judy Adams said Alabama

still markets its port as being capable of handling all types of

cargo.

"(Mobile) can handle ro-ro cargo without adversely impacting

capacity or capability of handling break-bulk or containers," she

said. "If a ro-ro opportunity presents itself, we accommodate."

Millions of containers enter the United States every year

through terminals in California, but port congestion and labor

shortages in recent years have forced cargo ships to wait in long

lines at major West Coast ports. Many vessels small enough to fit

through the Panama Canal have been diverted to ports in the Gulf of

Mexico.

Experts believe the planned expansion of the Panama Canal, which

would allow next-generation megaships to cross into the Gulf, will

drastically increase business at Gulf Coast ports.

When the canal expansion is complete and cargo begins to pour

in, industry observers believe smaller ports, such as Gulfport and

Galveston, will see a profound jump in demand for roll-on, roll-off

cargo and eventually corner that market.

Allee said Gulfport will soon purchase at least two new cranes

to help strengthen its ability to handle lift-on, lift-off cargo,

or lo-lo. But the port began focusing on the niche of roll-on,

roll-off cargo several years ago with the construction of its first

dock specifically designed for ro-ro vessels in 2004.

Crowley Maritime Corp., one of the port's largest tenants, makes

three calls a week at Gulfport using ro-ro vessels carrying

manufacturing tools, and road-construction and industrial equipment

on the company's North America to Latin America trade route.

Crowley is feeling some effects of the economy. The company's

Latin America service saw nearly a 6 percent drop in southbound

container volume from Gulfport and Port Everglades, Fla., in

October compared with October 2007.

But Crowley's trade routes through Gulfport also rely heavily on

perishable foods - imports shipped in refrigerated containers - and

Crowley executives believe most of their service to Gulfport will

be spared from the current economic crisis.

Allee agreed.

"It is a global issue, but never in history has there been a

global situation where something wasn't being shipped. "If the

dollar is strong, then typically our import goods should be up, and

most recently the dollar hasn't performed as well as it should, and

consequently our exports are up."

In addition to heavy equipment similar to the cargo on Crowley's

roll-on, roll-off vessels, shipper WWL carries more than 3 million

vehicles per year using a global fleet of more than 60 vessels to

serve 20 different trade routes between five continents. WWL is one

of the largest shippers of ro-ro cargo in the world.

Of those scheduled stops, WWL makes two calls a month at the

Port of Galveston using roll-on, roll-off vessels.

WWL spokesman Jonathan Spampinato said Galveston offers many

advantages that will benefit the company's ro-ro service for years

to come, including dedicated rail access and other capabilities

that are "especially beneficial for project and other

non-container cargos."

Galveston is still climbing out from under Hurricane Ike debris

but Steve Cernak, executive director for the Port of Galveston,

said the port's ability to handle roll-on, roll-off cargo has

helped speed the recovery.

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