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Sunday, 23 June 2013 22:00

Group marketing Muskegon’s port to encourage more vessel traffic

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A new port advisory committee in Muskegon wants to better market the port’s capabilities to companies to use as an option for shipping goods into or out of West Michigan. The committee wants scenes like this at the Mart Dock to become more commonplace and help drive increased economic activity for Muskegon and West Michigan. A new port advisory committee in Muskegon wants to better market the port’s capabilities to companies to use as an option for shipping goods into or out of West Michigan. The committee wants scenes like this at the Mart Dock to become more commonplace and help drive increased economic activity for Muskegon and West Michigan. COURTESY PHOTO

West Michigan’s only natural, deep-water port has the capacity to handle increased freight traffic.

The problem: Not many shippers know what the Port of Muskegon can offer.

Tired of watching Great Lakes vessels sail past West Michigan’s largest port to destinations in Indiana and Illinois, a coalition of business owners, city and county government officials and economic developers have formed to better market the port’s capabilities and capture more economic activity in the region.

“I believe (the Port of Muskegon) is being very underutilized,” said Terry Sabo, a Muskegon county commissioner. Sabo sits on the newly formed port advisory committee, which he described as a “conglomerate of officials from the city and county (government) and business owners in Muskegon.”

“We are trying to get everyone to the table to figure out how to utilize the port in an efficient manner,” Sabo said. “The goal is (increased) economic development.”

Sabo told MiBiz that large freighters coming from Lake Huron go through the Straits of Mackinac and often bypass the Muskegon port while bound for Burns Harbor in Indiana. To add insult to injury, the vessels are then off-loaded and their contents put on trucks and sent back to West Michigan, he said.

“I don’t know if it’s a lack of knowledge about the port,” Sabo said. “We want to identify potential customers and market ourselves.”

West Michigan manufacturers are one important group of potential users the port committee hopes to target, said Scott Musselman, CFO at Sand Products Corp., which operates the Mart Dock on Muskegon Lake.

“That’s what we’re exploring: Who in West Michigan is manufacturing where shipping out of Muskegon might make sense?” Musselman said, noting the port should be useful for companies looking to export products.

Muskegon’s port had nearly 1.48 million tons in shipments in 2011, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center. The vast majority of that activity — almost 1.27 tons — was domestic freight. Muskegon ranked 122nd in tonnage among all U.S. ports.

Rick Chapla, vice president of business development at The Right Place Inc., a West Michigan economic development group, said that while the port remains “very active,” there are numerous options to enhance the business opportunities there and tie into a broader push for the region to become a center for multimodal logistics.

Chapla said the port advisory committee is primarily looking at ways to diversify the kind of freight coming into Muskegon, as well as new ways to market the port’s capabilities.

In a May presentation to the committee, Chapla pointed out that the website took viewers to the page for the Tyler Creek Golf Course in southeast Kent County. The golf course is owned by the Sand Products Corp., which also runs a dock facility on Muskegon Lake.

The situation is but one example of the difficulty companies could face in finding information about the port in a timely manner, Chapla said.

“Part of the reason why (the committee) is at the table is because of the work commenced with the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC),” Chapla said. “It’s about logistics and movement of freight by all modes.”
MiBiz reported on June 10 about a group of executives from prominent West Michigan companies who are collaborating to explore new logistics strategies and best practices. While Chapla said that new strategies are being explored at the state level — largely geared toward the New International Trade Crossing between Detroit and Windsor, as well as to increase the vitality of the state’s airports — developers in West Michigan are looking at new waterborne methods of transporting goods.

Michigan’s use of Great Lakes shipping is being underutilized, Chapla said.

Parties involved in the port advisory committee were hesitant to get into specifics regarding benchmarks for progress or timeframes for the port marketing and outreach effort, which is expected to cost from $75,000 to $85,000.

“We want to build a solid base to work off,” county commissioner Sabo said. “Too often, things go faster than they should. There is no sense in rushing into it. Let’s all work together.”

For an aspirational goal, the group is looking to the Port of Milwaukee as a benchmark, said Tim Mroz, vice president of marketing and communications for The Right Place. The Port of Milwaukee handled more than 2.9 million tons of freight in 2011, according to the Waterborne Commerce Statistics Center — nearly double the volume in Muskegon. While the Muskegon group doesn’t want to replicate Milwaukee’s capabilities, it does think its cross-lake peer city could serve as a target for the tonnage Muskegon might be able to attract.

Historically, Muskegon’s port was a major hub for the lumber industry. Logs from northern Michigan were sent down the Muskegon River to Muskegon Lake, home to more than 40 lumber mills at the turn of the twentieth century. From there, the finished wood products were shipped via the Great Lakes to destinations around the country.

In present day, Muskegon’s port has been a destination for ships carrying aggregate material like stone and sand, as well as coal. Much of that coal is shipped in by Consumers Energy to the B.C. Cobb Generating Plant on Muskegon Lake.

Consumers announced in 2011 that it planned to shut down the Cobb plant by 2015 partly because of new air quality regulations for coal-fired power plants.

In 2012, the port was also used for foreign commerce involving alternative energy. Holland-based Energetx Composites LLC exported wind turbine blade molds to a company in Bilbao, Spain via the Mart Dock in Muskegon. Additionally, Korean-made wind turbine towers were off-loaded in Muskegon and transported to a wind farm in central Michigan.

“I definitely think there has been an increase in alternative energy (parts) coming in,” Sabo said. “We want to take on anything for economic development as long as it is safe for the water and for the environment.”

Read 5722 times Last modified on Friday, 19 July 2013 12:06

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