Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
February 23, 2015 9:00 a.m.
Members of the Fernandina Maritime Exchange, elected Port Authority commissioners and interested members of the public gathered in the Nassau County Board of County Commissioners’ meeting chamber in Yulee on February 19, 2015, to hear Val Schwec deliver an update on the state of the Port of Fernandina. Schwec, who is the Commercial Director for the Southeast Region for Kinder Morgan Terminals, runs the business end of the Fernandina Beach port on behalf of the elected 5-man Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA).
He began his talk by providing some background on his parent company, Kinder Morgan, as seen in the slide below.
Schwec informed his audience that he did not want to dwell on 2014, one of the lowest tonnage years the port has experienced due to a significant drop in steel exports. He cited a good partnership with the OHPA, which has been confrontation-free over the years. He also cited a major port success story in having just completed 28 years with the shipping firm Somers Isles. He said that Fernandina Beach has a premier port with lots of flexibility and the infrastructure that will allow it to get back on track this year.
The biggest asset the Port of Fernandina possesses is its 2.2-mile channel, which allows ships to save considerable operating time. In contrast, Schwec said, ships transiting to Jacksonville’s port require an added 2-3 hours and those doing business in Savannah require an added 4 hours. There are no bridge obstructions in navigating Fernandina’s channel, and there is a turning basin directly across from the pier. The 1200 linear foot pier allows the port to handle two vessels at a time.
While the port has an 11-acre container yard, that translates into 9.5 usable acres. If it were at full capacity, it could handle 3200 TEUs (cargo containers), but that would mean that the port could then handle nothing else. The port has a 200K square foot warehouse, with offsite warehouse on Friendly Road and in Yulee. The Fernandina port is a full service port.
The port concentrates business activities in four areas: container traffic for north-south trade lanes, break bulk operations for primarily forest products, bulk cargo, and off-port warehousing and distribution, which expands the reach of the port.
Schwec listed a series of capital improvements anticipated including a $400K warehouse project, rehabilitation of the gantry cranes ($2M), and replacing dock fenders ($600K to include grant funding).
Acting on a tip from the Brunswick port, Fernandina took advantage of an opportunity to import oats for the horse racing community this past year. Based upon that success, the port may be handling even more grain imports in the future. Other new opportunities for 2015 include liner service to the west coast of South America and liner service to Spain and the Mediterranean.
Other activities are not yet certain but highly probable for 2015 including weekly container service connecting North and South America, importing fertilizers and salts, and packing containers for export with goods that arrive by rail.
Schwec also cited some headwinds that the port will encounter. With the value of the dollar increasing, exports become more expensive. With weak economies and deflation in the European Union countries, US exports could suffer. He also cited political risks as a factor in the shipping business, especially problems in the Middle East, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, and smaller, trade dependent governments around the world.
The state of Florida has launched initiatives to increase the business going through Florida’s ports. Currently, 50 percent of all containers that enter Florida arrive from another state, as opposed to being shipped directly to Florida. Florida receives little benefit from such shipping while having to pay for the roads and infrastructure to support the transport of these containers by road or rail.
In an attempt to bring more business directly to Florida ports, there is growing emphasis on marketing, distribution centers, streamlining the regulatory process, and attracting export-oriented industry to Florida.
At the conclusion of Schwec’s remarks, OHPA Chair Richard Bruce thanked the Fernandina Maritime Exchange, a not-for profit organization that was formed about 5 years ago, for helping to raise awareness in the community on the importance of the maritime industry.
In closing his remarks Schwec presented a photo of the Fernandina waterfront in 1907 to show how the port has changed over the years. “You can never forget where you were,” he said. The photo below was not the one Schwec presented, but it is taken from the Florida Photographic Collection and shows a different view of the 1907 waterfront.
Editor’s Note: Suanne Z. Thamm is a native of Chautauqua County, NY, who moved to Fernandina Beach from Alexandria,VA, in 1994. As a long time city resident and city watcher, she provides interesting insight into the many issues that impact our city. We are grateful for Suanne’s many contributions to the Fernandina Observer.