The Port of Cleveland is a trade link to the rest of the world and was the foundation of its trade and prosperity. But the image of Cleveland as a busy port city is waning. It's the third largest port on the Great Lakes but shipping statistics are down. That's why some industry leaders are questioning the role and the future of the port. 90.3 WCPN's Mike West has this report.
Mike West: Welcome to the shipping docks at the Port of Cleveland. Today, steel coils are being unloaded by a crane and fork-lift. The cargo is being loading into a warehouse. Later, trucks will deliver the steel to factories where it will be made into products. Most of the cargo unloaded here is raw materiel for the steel industry. Almost nothing is exported. The port had record activity in the late 90s but recently the slow economy has led to lower demand for the raw materials needed by local factories. That adds up to less traffic at the port.
Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim McCormack says he was stunned to find that Cleveland ranks near the bottom when in comes to handling cargo.
Tim McCormack: You know, we're supposed to be one of the major cities and one of the majors ports in the country. And when you look at Cleveland, relative even to the Great Lakes or even Lake Erie ports, even there we don't do well.
MW: According to the American Association Of Port Authorities, Cleveland is ranked 61st in the world for total trade at its loading docks. For domestic cargos, Cleveland is number 32. The commissioner says he is concerned because many much smaller cities had busier ports. They include Ashtabula, Toledo and Sandusky. McCormack says if things don't turn around soon, the days of the port are numbered.
TM: There will be mega ports, and smaller ports will die from a lack of business. So certainly this city that has lost 110,000 manufacturing jobs in the last 20 years needs to ask questions about why we're in the bottom 10th percentile in terms of exports and not doing to terribly well.
MW: The commissioner says more is at stake than the jobs of longshoremen who are losing work.
TM: Why is it important? Because pay scale - we are falling behind pier regions. We're not making as much money, we're not creating as many jobs. In order to build the community, we're going to have to ask the tough questions about why we aren't doing better - to be 86th out of 100 deserves questions. Maybe there's a good explanation why do not show up well at all in terms of total trade imports, exports, and we better find answers for that.
MW: Steve Pfeiffer has answers. The maritime director says the numbers don't take several factors into consideration. Pfeiffer explains that to get a true picture you need to look at exactly what is being shipped.
Steve Pfeiffer: The whole answer is not in just tons because what you have to do is look at a few factors - number one is "it's a ton of what," and what is the impact of that ton on the community? Obviously, a ton of iron ore in Cleveland has a tremendous impact because we make the steel and we use that steel in the manufacturing process, so it has a huge impact as opposed to coal or a ton of salt.
MW: The numbers also don't take into account what happens when that cargo hits town. Pfeiffer says Cleveland benefits more than other cities because we use what we import, instead of putting it on a train car or semi-truck.
SP: Cleveland is a destination port, it's not a transit port. The east coast, gulf coast, west coast ports and even some on the Great Lakes are transit ports - material does not stay in the area. What it does is it moves through the area, so consequently the economic impact of that is very small on the place where it is being trans-shipped. 90% of the cargo that we handle is consumed within 60 miles of the port. So the economic impact is right here, it's not in a community 500 or a thousand miles away.
MW: John Baker is the international vice president of the Longshoreman's Union. He's been on the Cleveland docks for over 40 years. Baker says in the past ships were unloaded daily. But so far this year only 3 ships have come in since March 26th when the international shipping season opened. Baker says a problem for Cleveland is the lack of freight container traffic. He feels the port needs to create demand for dropping off containers that would be loaded onto truck or trains.
John Baker: It's like the chicken or the egg - which comes first? We have the capacity right now with our cranes to discharge containers. The question is, we gotta get our big companies not only in the state of Ohio but the automotive field. They import an awful lot of parts for an automobile and that's what we gotta do, we gotta market that territory so we can get containers to come into our hinterland and not on the east coast or Canada.
MW: Cleveland and other Great Lakes cities are also at a disadvantage with east and west coast ports because of the St. Lawrence Seaway. It's the waterway that leads from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes. Baker says the waterway needs to be expanded to allow bigger ships into inland waters. He say political leaders need to get involved before the opportunity is lost.
JB: This is the time that in our congress we'll never see a congress like today, like we have today, that's controlled by Great Lakes congress people and senators. So if we don't do it now we're never going to see it. And we are working on it.
MW: Baker says a three-year study is underway on expanding the St. Lawrence Seaway. It's sponsored by port authorities in the U.S. and Canada. County Commissioner Tim McCormack is also asking that some of the money raised by a recently passed port authority levy be used to study these port issues. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN News.