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Chiquita mulls decision while N.O., Gulfport wait to see

Chiquita International confirmed in an email on Tuesday that the banana importer is in fact considering whether it will remain at the Port of New Orleans.

Speculation has been rampant in recent weeks, without previous confirmation, about the matter, raising the possibility that the company might return to the Port of Gulfport, which it left two and one-half years ago.

“At this time the matter remains under consideration internally at Chiquita and no external statement or information is available,” the email sent by consultant Barbara H. Hines said.

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The MSC Judith is shown berthed at the Port of New Orleans Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal. Courtesy of Port of New Orleans

Gulfport Executive Director Jonathan Daniels has said that he has not gotten any official notice from Chiquita. Efforts to reach him this week were unsuccessful.

Gary LaGrange, New Orleans port chief executive and president, said Tuesday that he has heard “nothing new, nothing official.”

“We’re moving ahead, business as usual,” LaGrange said. At stake are upwards of 350 jobs and several hundred million dollars in economic impact.

“We had an excellent year with them,” he said. “There’s no bad blood. You never know what makes a company want to relocate.”

LaGrange said that an 11th-hour decision by Irish company Fyffes not to buy Chiquita and the subsequent sale to Brazil-based Cutrale may have muddied the waters with the port.

LaGrange had been director of the Port of Gulfport in the late 1990s.

Gary LaGrange

Gary LaGrange

As for the importer moving its operation back to Gulfport, where it had operated for 40 years, LaGrange said there is nothing about the facility that would prevent that.

The harbor depth of 36 feet is more than enough to handle the ships, he said.

In a related matter, the expansion of the Panama Canal is expected to be completed this year.

“The Panama Canal is going to be 50 feet deep, but that doesn’t mean that every port has to be 50 feet deep. Probably less than 5 percent of the U.S. ports are 50 feet.” Those ports are at Baltimore, Md.; Norfolk, Va.; New York/New Jersey and Miami, he said.

Otherwise, the solution will be for ships coming through the canal to offload their shipments to shallower-draft vessels, which can take the shipments to domestic ports, he said.

The New Orleans port is 45 feet deep, he said. The state of Louisiana provided Chiquita with a performance-based $11.3 million deal, plus $2.2 million for a distribution and fruit ripening facility, though Chiquita decided to continue to ripen its fruit in Gulfport so about half the $2.2 million was spent, LaGrange told the New Orleans Advocate.

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