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Shipping: East meets East in Umatilla

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Monday, May 01, 2006

PORT OF UMATILLA — When longtime business professor Kim Puzey arrived to run the Port of Umatilla 12 years ago, it was in deep debt with a loading crane built in 1940. Puzey has since helped erase the debt and snag $3.8 million in federal funds for a new crane to offload shipping containers. Now, he’s ready to make Umatilla an international trade hub. Don’t snicker. His port may be nearly 300 miles up the Columbia, but he’s forging some strong ties with Chinese companies looking to bypass the crowded ports of Long Beach and Seattle-Tacoma.

Kim Puzey, Port of Umatilla

Photo courtesy of the Port of Umatilla

Oregon Business: Why were you in China last year?

Kim Puzey: There are 1.3 billion people in China and I’ve got this crane at a dinky little port in Eastern Oregon. I was sure I could get connected with someone out of those 1.3 billion.

We met with folks at Yichang, the Yangtse River port that is most like Umatilla. We’re drafting an agreement to share assistance and information. Since the trip, we had a visitor in Windy Pang, general manager of the Chongqing Kingstar Science & Technology Co. Ltd. (an import-export outfit). She’s interested in building a distribution center at the Port of Umatilla for export products — all-terrain vehicles, motorcycle parts, generators. If we get a distribution center, we’ll get retailers and wholesalers interested and everybody is going to be jumping up and down.

How would you fill the containers back up for export?
I’m really close to signing a deal to export logs, scrap metal and hides. It’s so close the walls are bulging around here. I also know there are french fries being trucked from Eastern Washington into Puget Sound.

Why wouldn’t shippers just continue using rail and truck freight?
We are not that much slower than the train and you need a lot of real estate to park a train. We are $100 less per load than a truck, plus there’s an environmental advantage with just one engine per 600 containers versus the one engine per load with a truck.

This comes just a few years after the Port of Portland lost 40% of its container service.
We might just turn this thing around.It’s been painful year and half. Ship-ping companies can do more trips and make more money by bringing high-value goods from Asia and head back empty from Long Beach and the Puget Sound. So they haven’t had to take on our agriculture exports. When I’m out talking to people in China, I’m marketing Portland 50% of the time. All our imports and exports would come by ship to Portland, then offload by barge tow to come up here.

— Oakley Brooks
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