N.C. Ports' container business has grown 61 percent, year over year to date, according to Paul Cozza, executive director of N.C. Ports.
To keep up with that growth, Cozza said port officials are looking into additional projects, including deepening the Cape Fear River and upgrading its container yard. The projects were part of the updates Cozza shared at a luncheon Friday hosted by the N.C. Foreign Trade Promotion Council.
A crowd of 80 people from the business, trade and transportation community, including local leaders, attended the conference at Cape Fear Country Club on Friday.
As part of his update, Cozza highlighted the growth at N.C. Ports and the Port of Wilmington's ongoing infrastructure improvements. Refrigerated containers have tripled over the past four years at the Wilmington port. And N.C. Ports now has 17 shipping carriers coming through the port, versus six in 2014. It has also increased its port combinations to 65, versus 12 in 2014, he said.
"That's additional possibilities of trade for companies in and around the Carolinas. As we add more shipping companies -- there are more routes -- that's more ability to do trade; get more efficient; open up new markets for our companies ... and grow on the basis of either exporting or growing on the basis that they are doing importing too," Cozza said.
One of the next steps for the Port of Wilmington is working on the terminal, which includes growing and modernizing its container yard, Cozza said.
"We're just about ready to sign off on a major modification of the terminal itself," he said. "Why do we need to do that? So that we can keep up with this growth, it can be efficient, and then more importantly, that we can keep that best in class productivity.
"This is going to be a project that's going to take us a good two to three years to get it completed."
N.C. Ports is also looking into further enhancement of the Cape Fear River channel, he said. The Port of Wilmington wants to look forward to staying competitive, he said, adding that port officials do not know just how deep the channel needs to be at this time.
Port officials are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a feasibility study for the project, he said.
"We are competitive now. We're having these big vessels coming in. But we've got to stay competitive with the other ports," Cozza said. "Savanah is in the process of deepening, Charleston is in the process of deepening, Jacksonville is; so it's up and down the coast. And we have to look at the same thing."
Along with that project, the Port of Wilmington is also looking into further widening its turning basin, Cozza said.
The port completed a widening of its turning basin at the Port of Wilmington in 2016, part of the port's ongoing $200 million in infrastructure improvements. That project gave the port the ability to handle vessels with a length of 1,150 feet and a breadth of 158 feet, according to port officials.
The $200-million investment also included the port's new neo-Panamax cranes -- with a third on the way -- and ongoing berth improvements, which when complete, will allow the port to service two of the larger cargo vessels at the same time.
Cozza said that the Port of Wilmington is a "conduit for economic development for the state," and N.C. Ports wants to be seen as even more of a contributor to economic growth.
"We want to be seen as a partner with all our economic activity, which allows the entire state, as a basis of being a catalyst, if there is a company that is looking at situating itself somewhere in the greater Wilmington area," Cozza said. "And that is one of the key things we focus on now and we are going to continue to focus on."