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Port at a crossroads

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Articles - April 2014
Thursday, March 27, 2014

What do they talk about instead? Fracking. Shale oil. Tar sands. In terms of domestic abundance and low price. And while Wyatt says there’s a lot of grappling over what, exactly, that means, it could signal the return of basic manufacturing to America, particularly as wages rise overseas. “Is [the manufacturing revival] all going to come to Portland? I don’t know.”

But what it may mean for the Port is that the export economy may still grow, fueled either by local manufacturing or by exporters based in the Midwest, like car companies that will use the rail link to Portland to transport goods overseas.

Already, there’s evidence this trend will come to be. Sectors that moved offshore in the last 15 years are coming home: steel making, aluminum making, metal fabrication. And true to its gateway roots, the Port of Portland has relayed a steady stream of cars from Detroit to Asia in the last two years, exports that may be the first trickle of a stream of Asian-bound exports that have yet to arrive. Nine thousand Fords left the Port for South Korea and China last year. Next year, 40,000 China-bound exports are expected to roll through town. Auto Warehousing Company, which handles the flow, recently announced a $2.8 million expansion and another 50 jobs.

With those factors in mind, Wyatt says he isn’t ready to call all this movement of people a macroeconomic shift, though he notes air travel is a growing emphasis at the Port and for most business sectors. 

Poised to pursue all possibilities to grow jobs and stay relevant, the port’s posture echoes a unique moment for the Portland region — and for Oregon. It’s a time of change, as the region transitions from a place of exporting goods to a place conceived in its own image, one that many years from now may simply be home rather than a ring around the waterfront, or agriculture, or even Intel.

The future of the Port, and of Portland, depends on an array of complex and contradictory micro- and macroeconomic forces: the rise of China, onshoring, livability as an economic strategy and the dematerialization of goods into services. Figuring out how to navigate these murky waters — that is the Port’s challenge going forward.


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