Looking out a porthole window in his executive offices at the Tenth Avenue Marine Terminal, Ron Popham says he enjoys watching the cargo ships that arrive to dock on a daily basis.
That Popham, senior director of the San Diego Unified Port District’s maritime division, was referring to ships in the plural may not sound like such a big deal, but it is.
Before the port agency was separated from its richer cousin, the San Diego International Airport, it was rare to see two ships dock simultaneously at the 96-acre terminal on any given day.
Now, it’s common to see five importers unloading at once, and the same number can be accommodated at the port’s 125-acre National City Marine Terminal.
Late last month, Corte Madera-based Pasha Automotive Services announced that it had won a multiyear contract to offload 100,000 Mazdas annually at its National City operation.
“This will put San Diego in first place among West Coast auto importers, ahead of the ports of Long Beach and Portland,” Popham said.
But Pasha’s handling of 537,000 imported vehicles this year, including such makes as Lotus, Bentley, Honda, Acura, Volkswagen and Audi, by year end, is only part of the port’s success story. Loads of produce, sand, lumber, soda ash, borates, cement and parts for huge electricity-producing windmills are also on the rise, and officials have begun thinking about leasing additional space or buying more land to expand the terminals’ capacity, Popham said.
A Cargo Conscious Decision
San Diego is never going to rival Los Angeles and Long Beach, two of the nation’s busiest ports. It’s a niche port in terms of cargo, and from the standpoint of real estate, it’s also considered a development port because of the many hotels and businesses it counts as tenants, including the Manchester Grant Hyatt and the Marriott Hotel & Marina.
With U.S. imports exploding, the crowded ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach began turning away non-containerized, or “break bulk” cargo, said Port Commissioner Steve Cushman, who chairs the maritime committee. San Diego was only too willing to take some of it off their hands.
“San Diego is becoming known as a port that wants to work with folks,” Cushman said. “We have the labor supply ready, and are willing and able to unload you. There’s no waiting, as in Los Angeles and Long Beach.”
To cargo ports that count their success in tonnage, the proof is on the books. In fiscal 2003-2004, the first full year of business that the port sailed solo, it handled 2.6 million metric tons.
The following year, the tally stood at 2.9 million metric tons, and in fiscal 2005-2006, it was 3.5 million. Popham estimated that during fiscal 2006-2007, which began July 1, the total would increase to 3.8 million.
It’s easy to understand how the port could run out of space.
Laid end to end in an outside storage area of the Tenth Avenue terminal, between a warehouse and path for diesel trucks that haul produce, a couple of bundles of windmill blades were nearly as long as a football field.
Popham said that demand for windmills has grown because of the tax savings to be had for alternative energy sources and the port will soon be receiving larger parts and more of them, including the igloo-looking devices that lock the blades in place and power units that look like small pull trailers.
Getting In Their Face
The increase in cargo business wouldn’t have been possible, Cushman said, without traveling abroad and meeting the manufacturers, shippers and producers face to face.
“I was on a trade mission overseas recently,” he said, referring to a whistle-stop trip made this fall. “We made 18 calls in three countries, Ecuador, Peru and Chile, in six days. It was a killer.
“We’d fly all night and go to meetings all day. But it was necessary. You have to go and meet the principals and let them know who you are, because San Diego is not at the top of their list.”
Much of the credit for San Diego gaining stature as a cargo port, however, goes to Dole Fresh Fruit Co., a unit of Dole Food Co., Cushman stressed. Spending some $26.5 million in improvements to lure Dole Fresh Fruit to San Diego from Los Angeles in 2002 was one of the wisest investments the port has made, Cushman said.
“They’re a leader. So when we got Dole, it made us credible instantly because Dole only works with ports that perform well,” he added.
It’s a mutual admiration society.
“What Mr. Cushman was referring to is that others (produce companies and shippers) found validity in the fact that Dole came here first,” said Barry Jung, general manager for Dole Fresh Fruit Co.’s West Coast operations. “But we’ve been able to increase business 30 percent since we came to San Diego and added major chain stores.”
This is the first of a series that will look at the Port District’s cruise terminal business and labor force.