PORT POISED

Improvements in Panama Canal could ripple all the way to Gulfport

          Photo courtesy of Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport The proximity of the Port of Gulfport to the airport cargo center and Interstate 10 are key to the expansion of trade. The rail line adjacent to the port will be improved to Hattiesburg and a new connector road will be built to I-10, making the transportation network even better.

GULFPORT

The opportunity to increase South Mississippi’s share of cargo to and from Central and South America was bolstered by Hurricane Katrina and should get another surge from the expansion of the Panama Canal.

Mike Alise, president of Gulf Coast International Cargo, said a new air-cargo facility at the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport and a $1 billion expansion planned at the Port of Gulfport put the Coast in prime position to compete when the expansion of the Panama Canal is done in 2014.

“The opportunities on this Coast are endless,” he said.

The new air-cargo facility is four times larger than the original with 20,000 square feet of chiller space, 20,000 square feet of dry cargo space and 6,000 square feet of office space. Alise said without state and federal funds after Katrina, it’s unlikely a facility that size could be built.

Alise leases the space from the airport authority and transports cargo between Gulfport and South America.

He imports Panama Blue spring water from the rain forest in Panama and distributes it to all 50 states. Alise said he plans to add more perishables to his exports and imports, including salmon from Santiago, Chili, and flowers.

He said he showed he can manage rush orders when the jerseys for the L.A. Lakers and Chicago Bulls basketball game were delivered to the West Coast on time for opening night.

“That’s what we’re selling is the service,” he said.

The requirement that every shipping container be inspected could come in 2010 and Alise said with ports in Miami and on the West Coast already bottlenecked, it will slow things even more.

“We don’t want to replace Miami,” but he is looking at luring 10 percent to 15 percent of that business to Gulfport, possibly some of the 11 million cases of asparagus shipped from Peru to Miami.

Other ports and airports across the Gulf Coast also are anticipating getting a bigger share of the business when the Panama Canal opens to larger ships.

But Alise said Gulfport has a big advantage.

The port is only one mile from the shipping channel and he said that ships will be able to get in, get unloaded and get out before they could even make it in to many ports.

Last year Gulfport was ranked the 22nd busiest in the country by Zepol, which tracks the amount of cargo into ports nationwide.

It was the largest banana port in North America, handling 344 million pounds of bananas valued at $133 million, along with nearly $300 million in clothing.

Airport director Bruce Frallic said imports and exports are close to even on the Coast, with containers going out full and coming back full.

“The idea is to create a distribution point here,” he said. Exports, including computers, telephones, medicine and auto parts, would be consolidated from Dallas to Atlanta for shipment to South and Central America, he said.

Imports would move quickly from the port and airport throughout the country.

By MARY PEREZ – meperez@sunherald.com

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