Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Port of Vancouver USA: A Century of Possibilities

By Port of Vancouver Staff

This year marks the celebration of the first 100 years of progress at the Port of Vancouver. A channel that once seemed deep enough at 20 feet now accommodates the sea’s largest trade vessels, at 43 feet deep. Washington Prunes that crossed the docks bound for Europe’s breakfast tables have been replaced by giant wind turbines en route to power-generating farms across the Northwest. What began as a single-wharfed trading post has become a five-
terminal global port.

The port has also evolved into an economic force in both its community and the region, and a major player on the stage of worldwide trade. Port activities support nearly 17,000 local jobs and generate more than $1.6 billion in economic benefits to the area. As the only port in North America with two 140-metric-ton Liebherr mobile harbor cranes, Vancouver USA offers significant breakbulk and heavylift cargo handling capabilities. As the West Coast port of entry for Subaru America, an average of 60,000 automobiles pass through the port annually, and Vancouver has also become a major center for receiving wind energy components. The port is an industrial hub as well, with 50 tenants, more than 2 million square feet of warehouse space, and more than 800 acres of developed property for industrial and maritime activities.

The port is also a steward of land and water resources, dedicated to environmental restoration, habitat preservation, and sustainable growth.

Many events – both planned and unforeseen – have shaped the evolution of the Port of Vancouver. It’s hard to mark the previous century, however, without highlighting the following milestones.

1846: America Prevails
A line is drawn, placing Vancouver on US soil
A treaty between the US and Great Britain was finalized, and after years of each claiming dominion over the territory, what are now the state of Washington and the city of Vancouver came under American control. The debate had gone back to Lewis and Clark’s exploration of the region in 1805-1806, which bolstered US stakes to the region, versus the establishment of a fort by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1824, aiding British claims. The city of Vancouver, Washington was subsequently incorporated in 1857.

1912: Port of Vancouver USA Established
Residents choose “the broad highway”
Local residents Judge J.A. Munday and attorney Henry Crass lobbied for Vancouver to establish a real port. A former Confederate cavalryman, Judge Munday warned: “Vancouver must either take that fork of the road that leads to a humble existence or the broad highway that takes her to independent sisterhood and metropolitan proportions.” The vote, in a special election held in April 1912, was 631 to 182 in favor of establishing a port district.

1918: Shipbuilding Aids War Effort
Port leases land to shipbuilder G.M. Standifer Construction Corporation
The United States entered World War I, a move that profoundly affected Vancouver’s waterfront. Ten days after the declaration of war, Congress created the Emergency Fleet Corporation, to take over German ships in US ports, purchase neutral ships, lease private ships, and build new shipyards. By late April, workmen were building on four shipways along the Vancouver waterfront. The US War Shipping Board commissioned 10 wooden vessels to be built. In late May, the yard’s first ship, the Kineo, was christened. Steel ships were also in demand, and 10 steel cargo vessels were ordered by the US government, underscoring the port’s status as a national shipbuilding hub.

1925: “Terminal 1” Acquired
Port accepts ownership of municipal dock
On April 25, 1925, port commissioners unanimously accepted ownership of the City of Vancouver’s municipal dock, located at what is today Terminal 1. The commission also authorized expansion of the municipal dock that had been constructed and equipped by the city. The port officially took control and began operation of the dock on December 1, 1926.

1934: Grain Exporting Begins
Railway proposes grain facility at the port
The port approved leasing property to the Spokane, Portland & Seattle Railway for a grain facility. Improvements necessary for the proposed Pacific Continental Grain Company grain elevator included construction of a rail track from 16th Street, and dredging river approaches to the new elevator site. Today, more than 16 percent of US wheat is exported through the port’s grain facility, now operated by the United Grain Corporation.

1935: Great Western Malting Calls Vancouver Home
Port leases property as Prohibition ends
Arnold Blitz established a new malt plant at the port, called Great Western Malting Company. Blitz had purchased the Portland Brewing Company in 1909 and produced cereal beverages when alcohol was outlawed. He bought the Henry Weinhard Company in 1928, changing his firm’s name to Blitz-Weinhard. The company made beer when Prohibition was repealed in 1933, and Blitz was president. Still in operation at the port after more than 75 years, Great Western Malting is the oldest malting company in the western United States and one of the port’s longest-standing tenants.

1942: War Brings Shipyards to Life Again
Kaiser Shipbuilding Company puts thousands to work
Less than six weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and US entry into World War II in 1941, work began on a Vancouver shipyard operated by Henry J. Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation. From across the country, shipyard workers made their way west to Vancouver. At its peak, the Kaiser yards would employ 38,000 workers.

Bess (Elizabeth) Gedney Christensen, a Kaiser office employee who had worked previously at the Clark County Sun, recalled: “The glory of the Kaiser yard at Vancouver was the building of 50 escort carriers, the baby flattops, that distinguished themselves beyond expectations in the Pacific. We had seven-day workweeks – no days off, no vacations, just work. At one point, when the number of people quitting their jobs got dangerously high, I remember Edgar Kaiser pleading with the workers at a giant mass meeting to stay, shouting, ‘We need you – God, how we need you.’ And I remember the grief that swept through the yard when we got the news of our first carrier lost in action, the Liscome Bay.”

1959: Harbor Crane Expands Port Capabilities
Port purchases first harbor “whirly” crane
Workers installed a $225,000 “whirly” crane in the summer of 1959, on a 37-foot-wide track running the length of Terminal 2’s downriver side. Called a “whirly” crane because it was able to rotate a full 360 degrees, the long-awaited crane could lift loads up to 50 tons and greatly increased the port’s freight-handling capacity.

Today, the port has two of North America’s largest mobile harbor cranes, each capable of lifting 140 metric tons individually, and 210 metric tons together.

1963: Terminal Status Granted
Port receives important distinction
Port of Vancouver USA was granted full terminal status by the Pacific Westbound Conference and the inbound conferences – Japan, Hong Kong, Formosa Straits and the Philippines. This recognized the port’s size and capacity to accommodate major cargoes, and gave Vancouver preferred status for shippers making West Coast stops.

1972: Autos Roll Onto Docks
Automobile imports arrive at the port
A lease was signed with Riviera Motors, the largest Volkswagen importing and wholesaling firm on the West Coast, bringing the auto import business to the port. In the fall of 1972, the first ship arrived carrying Volkswagens, Porsches and Audis from Germany. Today, Subaru America offloads approximately 60,000 automobiles annually at the Port of Vancouver.

1986: Welcome High Tech
Port signs new tenant, high tech giant Panasonic
American Kotobuki Electronics Industries leased warehouse and office space at the port, bringing a large new employer to Southwest Washington. The Vancouver plant, known as Panasonic, was turning out 1 million television/video cassette recorder combinations annually by the decade’s end.

1996: Transportation Route Gets Makeover
New corridor streamlines traffic
Washington Governor Mike Lowry signed a bill funding the Mill Plain Extension project, an effort that had a major impact on the port area. Upon completion in 2000, the project relieved major truck congestion on Fourth Plain Boulevard, and significantly improved freight movement between the port and Interstate 5. Building on the improvement to Mill Plain, the port also completed construction of a new, more efficient entrance to Terminal 2, further improving the facility to handle a wide variety of imports and exports.

2001: Wind Energy Blows into Town
Windmills from Norway arrive at the port
In June 2001 a vessel dispatched by Star Shipping of Bergen, Norway arrived at the port with a unique cargo: 40 windmills. One of the port’s first shipments of wind energy components, the windmills had been built in Denmark and were destined for a wind farm west of Walla Walla, Washington. Today, the Port of Vancouver is a major point of entry for wind energy projects in the Columbia River region; in 2009, the US Census Bureau declared the Port of Vancouver the nation’s leading port for handling wind energy cargo.

2003: Key Property Resolution
Columbia Gateway development agreement reached
In the fall of 2003, an agreement was reached that settled 12 years of controversy over more than 1,000 acres of port property known as Columbia Gateway. Acquired over three decades and intended for industrial development, Columbia Gateway had been in development limbo due to environmental concerns and lawsuits. Included in the 2003 agreement were the stipulations that more than 542 acres of the parcel will be designated as natural habitat, and 517 acres can be developed for industrial use and jobs creation.

2009: Terminal 5 Dedication
Port purchases former aluminum production site
The port completed the purchase of approximately 218 acres formerly owned by Evergreen Aluminum LLC and Alcoa Aluminum, allowing the development of the port’s newest marine terminal, Terminal 5. Less than a month after closing on the property acquisitions, the port graded and surfaced a 30-acre area and was handling wind energy cargo on the new terminal. Terminal 5 was also selected in 2010 by BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company, as its preferred site for a new potash export facility. With operations slated to begin in 2015, the proposed facility is expected to handle 8 million tons of potash annually at its peak.

2010: Rail Loop Completed
Port finishes Terminal 5 loop of West Vancouver Freight Access project
In June 2010 the port officially completed the Terminal 5 Unit Train Improvement project. Delivery of the loop track, which marked a major milestone of the port’s ongoing West Vancouver Freight Access (WVFA) rail improvement project, added 35,000 feet of new rail capacity to the port’s internal system. Finished ahead of schedule and on budget, the new track allows unit trains to be handled within the port’s internal rail complex. When complete in 2017, the $150 million WVFA project is expected to reduce congestion on the regional rail system by as much as 40 percent.

2012: Centennial Celebration
Port of Vancouver USA turns 100
On April 6, 2012, the port will celebrate its 100th anniversary of becoming a port district. While its history as a maritime hub goes back much further, the port’s official centennial marks its first century as an anchor for the economic well-being of Vancouver, Clark County, and Southwest Washington.

Port of Vancouver USA Executive Director Larry Paulson, who will retire in April 2012 after 15 years with the port, is quick to point out that, while such milestones elicit pride, they must also evoke recognition of the people who helped bring the port so far – and those who stand ready to steer its future. “From the dedicated commissioners and directors who navigated the port starting in 1912, to the leaders who will take it into the future,” he says, “a consistent guiding mission has kept the Port of Vancouver on a course of continued expansion, prosperity and possibility.”

Paulson points to the quality of the staff through the years as key to its success. “We’ve focused on recruiting and keeping outstanding people at every level. Having the right team in place has helped ensure smart decisions, a sound vision, and well-designed plans for realizing that vision.” A good example is the West Vancouver Freight Access Project (WVFA), he says. “With WVFA, we had a chance to expand and dramatically improve our rail access. It’s a huge undertaking, with a long timeline and multiple phases. But everyone could see the benefits, and now we’re starting to reap the rewards. And by ‘we’ I mean many factions: the city, BNSF Railway, the port, and the community in terms of jobs and economic vitality.”

Deputy Executive Director Todd Coleman, the port’s incoming executive director, notes the importance of a consistent mission through the years. “It’s natural to focus on all the things that have changed over 100 years,” he observes. “But one of the most remarkable aspects is what hasn’t changed. We’ve stayed true to our initial core mission of marine and industrial development. Other ports have taken things in different directions, but it’s clear that for us that consistency has been key to our success.”

He also points out that the focus on the “Three Rs” – river, rail and road – which have been so integral to the port’s development mission over the past century have similarly not changed. “Those are still our key foundations. Making sure each of those transportation channels is ready to meet demands is crucial to our future.”

Paulson, Coleman and the three current port commissioners are also quick to point out that there has been a subtle shift toward a more proactive, assertive approach and culture throughout the port organization. Creating opportunity, capitalizing on advantages – this sense of staying a step ahead has helped the port attract and keep tenants and growing industries.

Commissioner Brian Wolfe calls it “The bright light of economic development.” He explains, “From top to bottom, the culture of the port reflects this attitude of moving forward and assertiveness. It keeps us pushing the envelope.” Commissioner Nancy Baker is even more direct. “We’ve been willing to take educated risks,” she says. “We make it a point to foresee opportunity, and then invest the right resources to court that opportunity. A good example is our two Liebherr mobile cranes. Being one of the only ports on the West Coast with two of those cranes has helped us become a leader in heavy lift cargo.” All agree that becoming an expert in heavy lift has been crucial to port prosperity, especially during the recent economic downturn.

Commissioner Jerry Oliver expands on Executive Director Paulson’s thoughts on WVFA. “I’ve been a supporter of the West Vancouver Freight Access project since before I was on the commission. I believe it will assure the future vitality of the port,” he says. “All the phases won’t be completed for several more years, but it’s already reducing congestion and improving capacity on the region’s rail system. Besides creating jobs, the rail upgrades will also lower costs for current and future port tenants, making them more competitive in the global marketplace.”

With leaders as notable for their diverse backgrounds and perspectives as for their shared commitment, the Port of Vancouver can look to the next century with confidence – grounded in an extraordinary history, buoyed by globally recognized capabilities and advantages, and eager to meet the next century as “the port of possibility.”