Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Port of Fernandina Looks South to Expand; Steel Exports Went Up Last Year, Defying the Economic Downturn

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Port of Fernandina Looks South to Expand; Steel Exports Went Up Last Year, Defying the Economic Downturn

Article excerpt

Byline: DAVID BAUERLEIN

Jacksonville isn't the only place where port officials are looking forward to business spin-offs from the widening of the Panama Canal.

The enlargement of the canal will require lots of steel, and the Port of Fernandina experienced a sizzling rate of growth in steel exports in 2009.

Bolstered by shipments to the Caribbean and South America, the port handled 240,000 tons of steel exports in 2009 vs. 80,000 tons in 2008.

The construction of the Panama Canal will help keep those exports flowing, said Val Schwec, commercial director for Kinder Morgan Inc., which operates the port for the Nassau County Ocean Highway and Port Authority.

Overall, the port tallied 507,000 tons of all products last year, a 13 percent increase over the previous year, bucking the global trend of declining trade.

The widening of the Panama Canal has given Jacksonville a shot at boosting its cargo volumes because a bigger canal would open the door to massive ships traversing the oceans from Asia to the East Coast. Jacksonville is seeking a deeper ship channel to accommodate the mega-ships.

Compared to Jacksonville, which handled 7.3 million tons of cargo in fiscal year 2009, Fernandina is a small port, doing less business in a year than Jacksonville gets per month.

Still, being small has its advantages in attracting and maintaining customers because "one phone call is all it takes," Schwec said.

"Every customer here is a big fish in a small sea," he said. "It's all important to us."

The port's customers include some large Northeast Florida manufacturers such as Gerdau Ameristeel's plant in Baldwin and the Smurfit-Stone paperboard mill in Fernandina Beach. Schwec said Fernandina also attracts business from other steel plants and from mills making forest products across the Southeast. …

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