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Port at a crossroads

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Commodities exports at the Port remain strong but just aren’t as critical to the metro region as they once were. While the demand for grain is towering, with 3.1 million bushels exported during the 2012-13 harvest, efficiency in labor is tighter than ever. Gone are the days of the airveyor and the days when bulk cargo was carried, hand to hand, to the hulls of ships.

Now grain is stored in massive elevators whose advances have whittled its formerly immense workforce. It leaves the Port today in enormous volumes but leaves barely a dribble in the local economy.

Montana native Mike Wong is among those acquired when Japanese-owned Marubeni purchased Columbia Grain in 2007. The rise in the middle class is shifting tastes and boosting demand abroad, Wong says, boosting exports from Portland but without much impact locally. 

“Really, this is just a port. It isn’t where [grain] is produced; it isn’t where it’s consumed. It’s a transfer point.” In his office on the 29th floor of the Wells Fargo building in downtown Portland, a flat-screen TV is tuned to Bloomberg and a constant ticker of commodities numbers. “The Chinese are requiring more of it, so we are answering the demand.”

The Port of Portland is a bit boutique: ranking 13th in the nation and third in the West for export tonnage, but still key to enabling passage of bulk goods to Asia from areas served by either barges on the Columbia River, or the Port’s unique direct rail link to the Midwest, the only such link to a West Coast port.

As export demands from other countries grow, other Oregon industries are indeed looking toward exports for the first time. Jeff Stone, executive director of the Oregon Association of Nurseries, says exports to other countries may soon increase that trade’s sales, which hit $744 million in 2012. “With growth of a middle class, especially in those markets, they are going to have disposable income to be able to look at what they want. That includes the materials that we grow in horticultural trade,” he says.

Wineries, berry growers and other Oregon producers are already seizing on that growing demand, aided by something they all agree the Port does very well: serve its smaller clients with a personal touch they couldn’t get in a larger port, making it possible for niche producers to develop export opportunities abroad.

This, combined with the energy revolution of the U.S., is what has Wyatt, while acknowledging the rise in the service economy in the metro region, unsure that it will shift Port focus completely to the airport over time.

“One thing you don’t hear people talking about today is peak oil,” says Wyatt. “Five years ago, there was a conventional view that we were running out of oil, that we would essentially see it effectively depleted in our lifetimes, and that those elements of the transportation sector — airplanes for example — that could not convert to alternative fuels would become too expensive to be sustainable. Nobody is talking about that anymore.”



 
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