Photo courtesy of the N.C. State Ports Authority
Despite the economic downturn, the North Carolina Ports Authority has seen an increase this year in containers entering and exiting the Port of Wilmington.
About 7,447 more containers were unloaded and loaded onto container ships from July 1 to Sept. 30, 2009 compared to the same fiscal period in 2008, according to Karen Fox, spokeswoman for the N.C. Ports. The 28 percent increase in container “moves” comes from companies choosing to move goods through Wilmington instead of Virginia, Savannah and Charleston.
The reason is economics. “We can afford up to a $200 savings per container compared to nearby ports and provide faster service in terms of unload,” said Thomas J. Eagar, CEO of the N.C. State Ports Authority.
Part of the cost savings at the Port of Wilmington comes from new technology that enables the port to move about 40 containers per hour. The $1.2 million operating system, including updated cranes, was installed two years ago.
Cheaper and faster ways of doing business draws new customers including two shipping lines – the ICL North Atlantic European liner and Maersk Central America – to the port this year. “When you have a difficult economy, everyone is looking at any way to generate savings,” Eagar said.
Like most east coast ports, the housing market slump hit the port of Wilmington hard this year.
“In the context of the industry, all ports have seen significant reductions in volume – particularly lumber and steel. We have seen about a 95 percent drop in lumber east coast wide and steel is about 60 percent down,” Eagar said. Lumber importers are bringing in only lumber that has been sold, he said.
When the demand picks up again, the port will see an increase in lumber.
Of the 194,608 TEUs or twenty foot equivalent units (a measurement based on the volume of a standard 20-foot long shipping container) that came through the port this year, most of the imported goods were retail merchandise, textiles from Central America and specialized equipment used in manufacturing. Exports were comprised of agriculture – including poultry and hog products, chemicals, hardwood lumber going to China for fine furniture and wood pulp.
“We’re sending more to the Wilmington port because of the close proximity which saves us on freight,” said Alejandro Vasquez, export sales representative for N.C. poultry exporter House of Raeford. The company exports its poultry products worldwide through the ports of Charleston, Savannah, and Wilmington.
Currently, they ship about 10 to 15 containers of frozen poultry out of the port of Wilmington to the coast of China from Hong Kong in the south to Dalian in the north.
“We will be using the Wilmington port more as the expansion progresses,” Vasquez said.
Meanwhile, he is keeping an eye on the proposed North Carolina International Terminal (NCIT). It could mean access to deeper water, which would bring larger vessels that reach more destinations for his company.
The North Carolina Department of Transportation is exploring alternative highway access to and from the proposed terminal in Southport. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers received funding for a reconnaissance study, which will be complete by May 2010, Eagar said. A feasibility study including an environmental impact report would then follow.
The governor’s office has been supportive of the project, Eagar said. However, they are awaiting the outcome of the studies. The Ports Authority is not actively looking for financing the NCIT yet, but it has received calls from interested capital investors. “They are seeing this project as a significant viability,” he said. “This project probably has less risk compared to other projects.”
The Cape Fear chapter of the World Trade Association will host Eagar’s annual update on the state of North Carolina ports on Nov. 17 from noon to 1:30 p.m. at The Balcony on the third floor of the Roudabush Building.
He will present on the short and long term outlook of the shipping industry as it relates to the N.C. ports. And, he will address port infrastructure, initiatives to make port operations greener, and an update on the NCIT.