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N.C. Ports Officials Hope To Complete Cold Chain Loop

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Nov 6, 2019
N.C. Ports wants to grow as a cold chain gateway, officials said at a summit held in Wilmington on Tuesday. (File photo)
Completing the export-import loop in the cold chain market at the Port of Wilmington would better facilitate and grow regional and state business, said Hans Bean, senior vice president of business development at N.C. Ports.

The opportunity exists to do so, Bean said, as he gave an update Tuesday on the Port of Wilmington's ability to handle chilled and frozen goods. His talk to business and industry leaders came during the third annual Cold Chain Summit: The Big Chill, hosted by N.C. Ports.

Ports spokeswoman Bethany Welch said 145 people registered for the day-long event, which took place at the Wilmington Convention Center.

“The Cold Chain Summit is a really great opportunity for us to highlight our place in serving both the North Carolina agriculture sector and the grocery sector,” Welch said at Tuesday’s summit.

This year, ports leaders, including Bean, focused a lot on imports and exports through the Wilmington port.

“As North Carolina grows, it's important that we bring together the key players in those segments to really highlight North Carolina and the place that the Port of Wilmington can play in furthering our perishables portfolio,” Welch said.

N.C. Ports has been implementing a more than $221 million capital improvement plan, which has brought several improvements to the Port of Wilmington, some of which are helping to strengthen its position as a cold chain gateway.

During his overview of the ports, Bean (right) touched on the second phase of the turning basin expansion project, now underway at the ports, as well as work to raise the height of power lines crossing over the Cape Fear River. In addition, a draft of the ports’ Wilmington Harbor enhancement project, which includes a proposal to deepen the harbor from 42 feet to 47 feet, sits at the federal level for review. These projects are overall improvements at the port aimed at accommodating larger cargo ships.

But there is still more work to be done to further improvements on the cold chain side of port business.

Work is already underway at the Port of Wilmington's container yard to triple its refrigerated container capacity. The $14 million project will add more plugs for refrigerated containers and reduce space on port grounds by stacking the containers.

The section of the yard is almost adjacent to the privately-owned Port of Wilmington Cold Storage facility, and is near the port's refrigerated container service area, Bean said.

Over the past four years, the port has tripled its refrigerated business, Bean said, adding, “we’re coming from a small baseline but it's still growing rapidly."

And the port can continue to grow in that cold market segment, he said, by adding connections with imports, to complete the loop for ocean carriers.

“With the growth, we’re at a point now where we need to complete those loops so ocean carriers can get those round-ship economics, the virtuous cycle that’s going to create better margins, better business, better flows,” Bean said.

To complete the cold chain equation, the Port of Wilmington aims to build more of a supply chain to serve the grocery sector, much of which is reaching the state through Philadelphia and South Florida, he said. 

Bananas are already are moving through Wilmington, but there's more that could be done at the Port of Wilmington to balance exports with more imports on the cold chain side, he said. 

"By far this is one of the biggest, if not the biggest opportunity for a game change for us in terms of equipment flows that support our exports on the refrigerated side, and also really helping our grocery sector do better business, have more efficient options,” Bean said.

A project to help with that, N.C. Ports issued a Request for Expressions of Interest for a near-port refrigerated warehouse. 

“This is what we need to see happen to really open up Wilmington as a produce gateway is: players, operators, investors, developers, builders that can put plans together -- working with us as the port, working with other stakeholders -- for a near-port footprint to develop and deliver chilled capacity," Bean said.

It would complement the frozen capacity the Port of Wilmington Cold Storage facility already has at the Wilmington port, he said. 

"This is the part that is vastly underserved. It's going to take a variety of partners to bring it to bear. Over the course of next month, we'll get feedback from the market and ultimately we're looking to evaluate and then help support and develop the best options in the chilled space that really can carry the port forward," Bean said. 

A refrigerated warehouse would help serve the imports that are already moving to the grocery sector in the state, while also helping to reduce costs and time associated with logistics. The port is also looking at making more intermodal connections to serve more markets, he said.

"This is a place where we can help North Carolina businesses on their bottom line [and] just be more successful," Bean said.
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