Don’t call it a comeback- New England ports are creating jobs and attracting new clients

Don’t call it a comeback- New England ports are creating jobs and attracting new clients

State and local governments are mulling over a way to increase their ports productivity. A solution could create thousands of jobs.

The peaceful bays of New England helped the nascent America flourish. Ever since the Colonial times, it was the ports of this region that propelled American commerce with whaling, fishing, and shipbuilding.

Yet these days, there is little glory to be seen amidst the crumbling infrastructure of the deep-water ports. In an age where the ships are getting too large even for the Panama canal, New England authorities are struggling to find a way to stay relevant in global trade.

Most of the causes behind the decline are global forces beyond anyone’s control. The Great Recession, for instance, saw the New Haven port, ranked a middling 33rd in the nation in 1972, plummet to 57th in 2013.

Another factor contributing to New England’s decline is the rise of Asia as the preeminent exporter. Up until the last few decades, it was Europe who sent the most sea cargo to America. With China now dominating global trade, New England’s location, high up on the East Coast of the United States, is increasingly irrelevant.

That being said, some of the causes in New England’s decreased popularity are entirely the fault of politics. A good port should be frequently dredged in order to remove the silt build up that makes the harbors ever shallower. In this respect, the will (and finances) to maintain the ports has not been forthcoming. For example, New England’s southernmost port at Bridgeport, Connecticut has not been dredged since 1964. The harbor no longer has the 35 foot depth it advertises.

“There are so few people who know about our deep-water ports,” said Judith Scheiffele, executive director of the New Haven Port Authority. “I think it’s kind of taken for granted.”

This is unfortunate because depth is the key to port activity. Boston, New England’s busiest ports, is deepening it’s harbor entrance to 51 feet and making the inner channels 47 feet in order to attract more business.

“A harbor’s depth is key to attracting business and has huge significance for marketing,” said Tim Sullivan, deputy commissioner at the Department of Economic and Community Development.

Only the ports of Boston and Portland are able to handle the lucrative large cargo ships. Most of New England’s ports only handle local cargo.

State and local governments are mulling over a way to increase their ports productivity. A solution could create thousands of jobs.

One obvious solution is to dredge deeper. New Haven is considering dredging as deep as 42 feet. Another solution is for the smaller ports- Bridgeport, New Haven, New London, etc – to advertise themselves as an alternative to the oft-congested waterways of Boston and New York.

Some ports are hoping to capture the spillover created by the large ports of New York-New Jersey and even Panama.

“The much bigger ships from Asia are not likely coming to Connecticut,” said Sullivan, of the Connecticut economic development department. “They’ll displace smaller ships from larger ports. Those ships are going to need some place to go.”

Even if the New England ports can no longer compete with other big harbors, they will never entirely go out of business. Since the early 20th century, tourism has been a huge boon to the area. This includes both visitors wishing to see the cities’ maritime history and culture as well as cruise ships docked, ready to take the many affluent New Englanders to Europe or the Caribbean.

New England ports also flourish within small niches of global trade. New Hampshire still receives tons of road salt and heating oil- staples necessary for New England’s brutal winters. Portland also sees a high number of electric cars shipped out to Iceland – such vehicles are in high demand thanks to the island nations plentiful geothermal energy reserves.

“We’re never going to be Long Beach or Baltimore or Boston,” said Bill Needelman, waterfront coordinator for Portland. “We’re a niche port that provides services for particular markets and products.”

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