State ports improve revenues, eye competitive advantages
March 27, 2013By Jenny Callison
Everyone knows that you can’t turn a ship on a dime. A steady hand on the helm, however, can bring it around.
The financial status of the North Carolina ports, similarly, has taken time to improve, said the Ports Authority’s acting executive director Jeff Miles. Speaking at Tuesday evening’s meeting of the Cape Fear Economic Development Council, Miles said he expected the N.C. Ports Authority to end its current fiscal year June 30 with a $2 million balance – a big contrast to the ports’ $5.9 million loss at the end of FY 2010.
Miles, who was appointed in February to head up the ports while a search is initiated for a permanent executive director, formerly served as the organization’s deputy director and chief operating officer.
Bulk cargo is helping drive port revenues, Miles said, citing wood fiber exports and grain imports as two hot commodities. Much of the grain is Brazilian corn, used for stock feed. Farmers in the South and Midwest have increased their demand for the corn, especially since crops and grazing lands have been hit hard by drought.
Miles listed the state ports’ priorities, taken from a strategic plan developed in 2012. Those priorities focus on further developing strategic niche markets, improving the ports’ overland access to markets and enhancing highway access in general, getting more support from railroads for long-distance transport, streamlining the “last mile” of transport into the port facilities, increasing the numbers of ocean carriers calling at the ports and improving navigational access.
The Port of Wilmington is eyeing three major improvements to its harbor: expanding the turning basin diameter from 1,200 feet to about 1,500 feet, smoothing out the turn for ships at Battery Island and increasing the clearance at the channel entrance to improve navigational safety.
With neighboring ports of Charleston, S.C., Norfolk, Va. and Savannah, Ga. running “behemoth” operations, Miles said he believes the success of North Carolina’s ports will come from outsmarting the competition.
“We need to use our excess capacity more fully,” he said. “We have plenty of warehouse space compared to our competitors, who are tearing down their warehouses to create room for containers.”
Warehouses at both state ports are currently storing durable consumer goods such as auto parts, as well as paper products, steel, special sensitive lumber from Europe and vehicles awaiting roll-on, roll-off shipping, Miles said.
He also said that the state’s ports have built a reputation for the quality of their operations and customer service.
“We’re really good operators; I know this because I’ve worked in a number of ports,” Miles said. “Recently, I got a nice compliment from Maersk, one of the world’s largest carriers. They told me that, while they have had problems at other ports, there was not one problem they can identify with Wilmington.”
An audience member asked whether wind farms proposed for off the southeastern North Carolina coast would pose any hazard to ships’ port access. Miles responded that, after talking with the Coast Guard, he does not think that the turbines’ locations would pose navigational problems. In fact, he continued, the building and maintenance of wind farms in waters southeast of Wilmington would provide additional opportunities for the port.
“We would compete aggressively for that business,” he said.