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Port Struggles During Financial Storm

by Eric Florip
The East Oregonian, October 12, 2008

By midweek, the Port of Umatilla typically buzzes with activity as its weekly barge leaves the dock loaded with freight.

On Wednesday afternoon, the dock area remained silent. The 70-foot loading crane sat idle. Few workers were visible.

That's because the port canceled its barge this week - the second time that's happened in the past month, said port General Manager Kim Puzey. A combination of factors have slowed activity at the port recently, leaving it to ride out an uncertain economic period in which many international shipping carriers are focusing more of their attention - and equipment - elsewhere.

"This is the first time in recent memory that we have not sent a barge to the Port of Portland," Puzey said. "This is critical."

Much of the difficulty stems from a lack of cargo containers made available to ports, Puzey said. As global markets change and the American economy slows, some shipping carriers have concentrated on Asian markets with more traffic and population. That often leaves ports such as Umatilla, which serves as a connector to Portland, without enough equipment or demand to serve their regional customers, Puzey said.

Though short-term conditions are tough for the port, Puzey said he remains optimistic the shipping situation can rebound. He called the current situation a "hiccup, not a heart attack."

The Port of Umatilla also keeps its other priorities in focus, including attracting new businesses to its land and encouraging economic growth in the area, said port Commissioner Kurt Bendixsen. He admitted times are tough for just about everyone, but said the port still is trying to bring industry and offset at least some of its struggles.

Umatilla isn't alone. At the Port of Lewiston in Idaho, things haven't been any better, said Port Manager David Doeringsfeld. Shipping volume through August took a 24 percent drop from that point last year, he said. The number of shipped containers last August alone plummeted 42 percent from the same month in 2007.

"That's when we really started seeing it," Doeringsfeld said of the summer. "It was like the numbers started falling off a cliff."

The Idaho port typically sends about four barges out each week, he said. Now it's closer to two. The port also laid off staff recently, Doeringsfeld said.

International carriers largely the port industry, so many of the factors that behind a port's success are also out of its control, Puzey said. Earlier this year, carriers cut off a direct line between Portland and Taiwan, which effectively eliminated that market for Umatilla's customers, he said. When carriers restored the route this week, the Port of Umatilla earned a much-needed victory, he added.

"That is great news," Puzey said.

Jumps in fees also might deter customers from shipping, opting instead for trucking when they can. And most carriers aren't tied to Portland through agreements like they are in larger Asian ports, Puzey said, leaving future business uncertain.

Doeringsfeld said that's one of the frustrating aspects.

"Most of what's going on is outside of our control," he said. "Right now we don't see a bright spot on the horizon."

In the mean time, Puzey and Doeringsfeld said they'll simply do the best they can under the circumstances. Doeringsfeld said the Port of Lewiston still holds a strong income base from businesses leasing land there. Puzey said the Port of Umatilla will try to make the most of a tough situation.

"The best thing we can do is provide the best service we can provide at our end," he said. "If we can get the dock to where it needs to be, then it leads to other things."

Bendixsen agreed.

"We believe that we're going to ride this out," the port commissioner said.

"Hermiston's a great place to live, and we're optimistic that the area will continue to grow and prosper."

Port of Portland
Marine Shipping Statistics from the Port of Portland Grains and minerals are up at Portland (exports); everything else is down.

Eric Florip
Port Struggles During Financial Storm
The East Oregonian, October 12, 2008

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