Shallow Waters 

After its biggest customer sails south, Richmond's port struggles to regain its footing.

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The Port of Richmond sits like an empty, forlorn parking lot these days. A few shipping containers lie scattered about and scores of truck trailers stand unused in one corner of the facility, located on Deepwater Terminal Road just south of downtown. The tracks of the rail spur to the port are rusty. No ships or barges are berthed in the narrow James River.

Not far away, city and port officials scramble to complete a new contract with a Delaware-based terminal operator due to take over management Oct. 1. Hopes are high that Port Contractors of New Castle, Del., can revive the dying facility. “We're working on the details right now,” port operator David McNeel says.

The recession is to blame for some of the woes at the port, but management is the bigger issue. The Port of Richmond suffered a cruel blow in March when its biggest customer for the past 24 years, International Container Lines, bolted for Wilmington, N.C., taking with it 75 percent of Richmond's shipments.

ICL had brought in a ship a week from Europe to the port, but now only one oceangoing vessel arrives about once a month from Iceland carrying with it frozen fish and Glacier brand bottled drinking water. About twice a week, a barge with containers is towed up the James from the huge port facilities in Hampton Roads.

The demise of the Port of Richmond raises other questions about the region's economic viability. Two decades ago, the port was humming. The giant Philip Morris cigarette plant just across Interstate 95 from the port was importing raw tobacco and exporting Marlboros and Virginia Slims. Another neighbor, DuPont, was taking in plastic pellets and sending out polyester and other fiber products. Media General was shipping used newsprint for recycling.

But shipping products at Richmond has come to a near halt. “Only about 3 percent of our shipments had been originating in Richmond,” says Dale Ross, chief operating officer of the container line, a Belgian company with U.S. headquarters still in Richmond near the airport.

The shift in goods transported raises issues about Richmond as a manufacturing center. “It is a good question,” says Greg Wingfield, president and chief executive of the Greater Richmond Partnership. Philip Morris no longer exports cigarettes from the United States since it split off Philip Morris International last year, in part to blunt health-related lawsuits against Philip Morris USA and Altria, its parent company, both based in Richmond.

Since last year, the international company has been making cigarettes overseas for global markets. DuPont has shifted shipping its products through much larger facilities in Hampton Roads. Media General has less paper since it has cut back dramatically on its newspaper size to deal with the economic downturn.

But Ross says there were other reasons why Richmond's port was left wanting. To get to Richmond, ships had to twist and turn in a narrow channel 80 miles up the James from Hampton Roads. The channel is only 21 feet deep so ships sometimes had to be offloaded at ICL's other port near Philadelphia to be able to handle the James.

“We could not come in fully laden,” Ross says. Richmond also does not have the modern and efficient container cranes as other ports such as Hampton Roads and Wilmington, Del., do.

The biggest reason, Ross says, was that Richmond wasn't a good strategic fit. “It was too close to our other port in Pennsylvania,” he says. “By going to Wilmington, it takes us closer to good markets in the Southeast.”

The statement flatly contradicts some of the marketing by local economic development groups that says greater Richmond is an ideal spot for shipping because it's near Interstates 95 and 64, at the midpoint along the East Coast and has good rail access.

As ports go, Wilmington, N.C., is tiny, shipping about 15,000 containers a year compared with 640,000 for Hampton Roads, according to the Journal of Commerce. But it has a 42-foot-deep channel, is a straight shot up the Cape Fear River from the ocean and has modern offloading facilities.

McNeel says that part of the deal being worked out with Port Contractors will include upgrades of equipment, including cranes that will be owned by the port and the city and rented out to operators.

Previously, Port Contractor's management had been paid about $250,000 a year to operate the port by Federal Marine Transport, a Canadian company that had run the facility since 1996. But the company decided not to renew its contract which expired this summer because of the lack of business at Richmond. It agreed to extend its terms until October.

Ross says that for Richmond to regain its lost status, it needs to attract at least three shipping lines the size of Eimskip, the Icelandic firm that brings in frozen fish and drinking water every month. “It's going to be hard to replace ICL,” he says. Indeed, Eimskip cut back its ship traffic to Richmond from two to one ship a month earlier this year.

McNeel says that Ross' statement is accurate and that the port is working out a solution by soliciting new shipping lines. Wingfield says there are hopes for “64 Express” or the barge service from Hampton Roads that was started a few years ago by a U.S. Maritime Administration project to make better use of America's inland waters.

With the recession still a factor, however, snagging new shipping companies will prove just as tricky. S

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