Gulfport — Mississippi’s State Port is over 100 years old but shows no sign of slowing down. In fact, it’s growing and becoming a national leader in waterborne commerce. Founded in 1902, the State Port Authority at Gulfport imports more bananas than any other Gulf of Mexico port, and is the third-largest container port in the Gulf and among the top 20 ports in the country.
But the best news, according to executive director Don Allee, is the balance of imports and exports that passes through Gulfport.
“A lot of ports don’t have a balance,” he said. “We moved 2.4 million tons last year with a 55% inbound to 45% outbound split.”
Imports include tropical fruit, apparel, forest products, aluminum, ilmenite ore and steel. Exports are paper, poultry, cotton, apparel, lubricants and resins.
Making a name
“We made our name on the green fruit business. Bananas have been a staple in the Gulf for many years,” Allee said. “We’ve been fortunate to have two of the biggest importers, Dole and Chiquita, here for four decades.”
Dole and Chiquita each have one ship per week that brings in bananas and returns with other cargo. A third Central American company, Turbana, also imports here but does not have the volume of the two larger companies. Turbana handles cargo in the “break bulk” method that Allee says is still an efficient way to move some commodities. Dole and Chiquita use the containerization method that was popularized in the early 1960s.
“Containerization has made moving cargo by water as economically efficient as possible,” the port director said. “That’s why you’re still paying 25 cents a pound for bananas like 15 years ago.”
Allee said the fruit companies try to handle their cargo as little as possible. The bananas are picked green by hand and kept at 40 degrees until the ship nears the port. Then the temperature is adjusted to begin the ripening process and the bananas that were picked green on Thursday hit store shelves in Memphis on Monday as ready-to-eat fruit.
“It’s a highly sophisticated process and everyone is focused on customer satisfaction,” he said. “This has made us known as a fruit port.”
The Dole ship comes in on Mondays and the Chiquita ship on Wednesdays. Allee says you can set your watch by their arrivals and the ships are ready to unload at 7 a.m.
“The empty containers are filled for the return trip,” he said. “We try to keep it moving at all times. Balanced trade is good for everyone, something coming in and something going out.”
For 40 years, the port has been receiving and handling cargo, Allee says, making it a specialist in that field.
Those empty cargo containers are more often than not filled with frozen poultry to the tune of 200,000 pounds of dark meat exported each year. Most of this frozen chicken goes to Central America, the Caribbean and the former Soviet Union where dark meat, unlike in this country, is preferred.
In addition to bananas, some seasonal melons and pineapple are imported plus aluminum from Argentina and forest products from Brazil. Several times each year the DuPont Chemical Company charters a boat to bring in black sand that’s used in their paint pigment operation at DeLisle. Machinery for the Canton Nissan plant was also imported here.
The deep-water port is strategically positioned on the northern Gulf of Mexico, just 16 miles from the open Gulf and seven minutes from the busiest interstate highway in the southern United States. The port’s channel is approximately 250 feet wide and is maintained to a depth of 36 feet. Allee describes the port as a multi-modal port with access to trucking, railroad lines and the Mississippi River.
“It’s our desire to be of service to two-thirds of the U.S. We consider ourselves to be an intermodal load center,” he said. “We want to be the most efficient port on the Gulf.”
Future growth, expansion, impact
Growth is on the 180-acre port’s horizon with the creation of 60 additional acres by landfill on the western side of the horseshoe-shaped facility. Expected to be complete in three years, the new area will be the site for all containers with the east pier for non-containerized cargo.
“We focus on doing something good for the community and create jobs,” Allee said. “We act as landlords with 60 port employees who maintain the facility and administer it.”
Other jobs are created directly and indirectly by port activities.
The State Port Authority is owned and governed by the state through the Mississippi Development Authority and the State Port Authority Board of Commissioners. The board members are appointed to staggered five-year terms with three appointed by the governor, one by Harrison County and one by the city of Gulfport. Current members include Virginia Shanteau Newton, John K. Rester, Dr. Roy L. Irons, Dalton D. McGuire and Lenwood S. Sawyer Jr.
Allee, a fifth generation Texan, has over 25 years experience in marine transportation with the majority in public port management. He came to Gulfport in 2002 after serving as executive director of the Port of Beaumont, Texas. He serves on the U.S. Gulf board of directors of the American Association of Port Authorities and is an officer of the Gulf Ports Association of the Americas. He is a graduate of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and attended the Jones Graduate School of Administration at Rice University in Houston. He and his wife, Michelle, are the parents of one son and one daughter.
Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at email@example.com.