New Port Plan Targets Cargo Growth, Economic Development In Wilmington

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Jun 25, 2021
The N.C. Port Authority board adopted Thursday the ports' five-year strategic plan. (Photo by Christina Haley)
Growing container volumes and helping the state generate economic development activity around the Port of Wilmington are areas of focus for N.C. Ports over the next five years.

Within its new five-year plan, the ports has a goal to grow container volumes by 50%, Stephanie Ayers, N.C. Ports' director of real estate and planning, said this week during the monthly meeting of the N.C. Ports Authority board.

N.C. Ports officials presented the strategic plan to port authority members on Thursday.

Ayers said the strategic plan centers on four core pillars: growth of cargo volumes; expanding global coverage of vessel services; engaging and supporting statewide economic development projects; and developing the talent pipeline in and around the ports.

“Currently we capture about 10% of our home market, and this plan envisions that will grow to approximately 17% of our home market. How we're going to do that is by focusing in a couple of areas specifically; agriculture and cold chain are really huge components to this plan and you're going to see that run through all of these different pillars."

The port is also focusing on other trade, including retail, consumer goods and hardware, as well as aiming to grow refrigerated containers and intermodal rail cargo.

Port officials this fiscal year are looking to expand their intermodal rail network with the Carolina Connector, or CCX, in Rocky Mount – an intermodal facility being built and operated by Jacksonville Florida-based CSX.

In the ports' vessel services, 58% of the port activity is through TransPacific, she said.

“Growing container services in this plan, we are forecasting that we are going to capture a new TransPacific service sometime approximately in the fiscal year 2023-24 ... TransPacific will be closer to 70% of that market," she said.

Projects within the port’s $221 million capital improvement plan have been setting up the Port of Wilmington to handle growing container volumes and services.

In addition to approving the strategic plan Thursday, the port authority board also approved its capital spending plan for the next fiscal year.

Officials approved $26.1 million in new capital projects for the 2021-22 fiscal year, with an additional $21 million in carry-over projects approved in the previous year, as well as pending projects yet approved by the board for spending. Ports officials expect to spend more than $11 million of the $26.1 million budget on the Port of Wilmington.

Another project in the works to facilitate service growth is the planned Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project, which is estimated to cost $834 million.

“The Wilmington Harbor Navigation Improvement Project is critical to continuing to grow additional vessel services,” Ayers said of the project.

The project has not been fully studied by federal officials or approved for construction.

The ports also looks to focus its strategy on working with the various partners to help with economic development projects.

That means "aligning and growing our North Carolina targeted market sectors; so working really closely with the state and our sister agencies together to go after these market segments that are good for the whole state,” Ayers said.

Economic development goals for N.C. Ports also include leveraging its real estate assets, she said.

N.C. Ports is currently marketing various properties, including a property on Raleigh Street.

It will also look to evaluate its plan for the 600-acre property in Southport, which was purchased by the authority in the mid- 2000s for about $30 million. The authority had planned to build an international terminal there, but later dropped the project.

“For the Southport property, we envision that we'll be doing some evaluation not only of the property value but also if we’re in a place to determine whether we should continue sitting on that property, or if we need to more actively make some determination of what we want to do with it,” Ayers said.

N.C. Ports officials have been developing the strategic plan for the past six months, said Brian Clark, executive director of N.C. Ports. 

“We spent time talking to our customers. We spent time talking to stakeholders throughout the state. We got a really good sense of ideas that influence each of these stakeholder groups,” Clark said.

Much research has gone into the plan as well, he said.

“Obviously we want to grow our cargo volume, but we also want to expand the reach we have on a global basis, the number of port fares on the container side and coverage in general,” Clark said. “We want to take a much more active presence with the statewide economic development groups. We have these assets, here, in Morehead City and in Charlotte. We feel like we can be in these economic development discussions around the state.”

Clark said, “I feel very confident that the preparation that ultimately leads to the strategic plan … will carry us forward for the next five years.”
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