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Port Sets Sail into Happy Seas in 2007

by Wendy Culverwell, Staff writer
Puget Sound Business Journal, May 15, 2006

The Port of Portland's 2007 budget reveals growth in all major business lines, reflecting an optimism not seen since the terrorist attacks five years ago.

Here's what the port expects next year:

It all adds up to a healthy budget in the coming year. The $223 million proposed spending plan is up 1 percent from a year ago and includes $129 million for capital projects, including a major land acquisition.

It's a far cry from the situation Bill Wyatt faced when he accepted the post of executive director on Sept. 4, 2001.

He was in Europe when the terrorist attacks happened.

Under Wyatt's leadership, the port used the lean moments that followed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to re-evaluate its business model, which led to the bold decision to invest about $10 million on a new crane to increase the efficiency of its cargo handling operations at the marine terminal.

The new crane can serve the "post-Panamax" generation of oceangoing vessels, so named because they are too big to pass through the Panama Canal.

To serve the super-wide ships, ports around the world have installed larger cranes that can reach across them. That makes it faster to load and unload containerized cargo, a key concern of shipping lines.

Wyatt called the investment in the Chinese-made crane a vote of confidence in the future.

"If we did not proceed with that, we could not compete for new business," he said. "You've got to do it."

The best news for the port may well arrive in the form of a ship steaming up the Columbia River this Sunday.

ZIM Integrated Shipping Services Ltd., of Haifa, Israel, pays its first call on Portland this weekend. ZIM is one of two much-needed new ocean carriers to start calling on Portland. Yang Ming Marine Line of Taiwan will start visiting in June.

Both agreed to make Portland a regular stop on their cross-ocean voyages and replace "K" Line and Hyundai, two lines that pulled out in 2004, leaving Portland with just one shipper, Hanjin.

"K" Line's decision was particularly difficult -- the line announced its intent to drop Portland the same day the president stopped in to voice his support for the Columbia River channel deepening effort. ZIM and Yang Ming will together help restore access to foreign ports and is one instance where port officials say their intense lobbying paid off.

"We've been out selling, selling, selling," said Wyatt, who added that Portland still needs better shipping connections to South America and Japan. ZIM can transfer cargo to Japan, but the longer shipping times don't sit well with many exporters, in particular those who refrigerate cargo.

He expects to announce a fourth shipping company by the end of the year, he said.

To that end, the port is still investing in its marine terminal. It will seek a Connect Oregon grant to add a second post-Panamax crane.

The port has good reason to be optimistic about its marine operations. All of its major tenants, including the three major auto importers, have renewed their leases and in some cases are spending millions to upgrade their facilities. Neither Wyatt nor the port's chief financial officer, Steven Schreiber, take credit for the improving picture.

Instead, they say the rise in air travel, marine cargo and other activity reflects Oregon's improving economy, which includes job growth.

That translates to more airline passengers and goods coming through the port, which is a gateway to inland ports as far away as Boise. Indeed, Wyatt likes to tell people to think of the port as the Port "at" Portland rather than the Port "of" Portland.

Wyatt and Schreiber continue to anticipate record boardings at Portland International, despite rising fuel prices.

Even with the latest round of fuel charges, Wyatt said it remains inexpensive to fly. If a $350 fare jumps to $370 because of fuel surcharges, "that's not a price point that pushes people off the plane," he said.

This summer, the port commission will decide whether to develop a new parking structure that would have 3,300 to 3,400 spaces, and, potentially, new offices for port staffers now housed near downtown in Old Town/Chinatown.

The prospect gives Old Town/Chinatown officials at the Portland Development Commission heartburn, but Wyatt said there will probably never be another chance to consolidate port employees in a building near the airport's main terminal.

The decision is far from made and the port has yet to see what adding an office building to a parking structure would do to the project budget.

More immediately, the port launches its most challenging capital project ever this year -- relocating its baggage scanning equipment away from the passenger terminal ticketing lobby.

The good news for passengers is that once the various security equipment is moved, a visit to the airport will seem more like it did before 9/11.

The budget also includes more than $7 million to acquire the former Reynolds Aluminum site in East Multnomah County as a future industrial development.

Wendy Culverwell
, Staff writer
Port Sets Sail into Happy Seas in 2007
Puget Sound Business Journal, May 15, 2006

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