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Chiquita reverses course, will return to Port of Gulfport

By JACK WEATHERLY

Chiquita Fresh North America LLC issued a release to the Mississippi Business Journal on Tuesday saying it will leave the Port of New Orleans and return to the Port of Gulfport next month.

The release was short on details. Port of Gulfport Executive Director Jonathan Daniels has said that longshoremen lost 80,000 annual hours when Chiquita left two and one-half years ago.

Chiquita President and Chief Executive Andrew Biles said in the release: “We are pleased to return our port operations to Gulfport where our Chiquita ripening and distribution facilities are located. We believe that Gulfport is optimally situated to service our customers most efficiently with both North and Southbound vessel services.”

Television station WLOX of Biloxi reported Tuesday night that the Mississippi State Port Commission approved late Tuesday afternoon a 40-year lease to bring Chiquita cargo ships back to the port.

The company will return to its previous location in the North Harbor, the Mississippi Development Authority said in a release on Wednesday. Chiquita’s operation will take in 32 acres – more than double what the company previously occupied.  The company also will have 110,000 square feet of warehouse space in the new West Pier Transit Shed, increasing its dry-storage capacity and adding 20,000 square feet of temperature-controlled space.

Chiquita will employ 10 management and operations personnel, while providing local longshoremen hours lost when the company relocated its shipping operations to New Orleans. The company maintained ripening operations at John Fayard Warehousing in Gulfport, with Chiquita’s containers visiting the Port of Gulfport on a regular basis for shipments.

Chiquita had operated out of the Port of Gulfport for 40 years before its departure.

An 11th-hour decision by Irish company not to buy Chiquita and the subsequent sale to Brazil-based Cutrale may have muddied the waters for the Port of New Orleans, its president and chief executive, Gary LaGrange, said in a recent interview with the Journal.

“We had an excellent year with them,” LaGrange said. “You never know what makes a company want to leave.”

The Port of Gulfport is undergoing a $566 million rebuilding and expansion and has a commitment to create 1,300 such jobs – 51 percent of which would be for low- to medium income people – in exchange for federal money shifted from the creation of housing for residents who lost their homes due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In February, TopSail LLC, which will build vessels to service offshore drilling rigs, agreed to create 1,000 jobs in exchange for the state borrowing $11 million to finance worker training and incentives.

Seven hundred of those jobs must be created within three years after the completion of work on the port, which is expected in 2017. Fifty-one percent of those jobs, or 357, would have to go to low- or medium-income individuals.

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