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Study explores potential of Delaware river ports

August 4, 2008

John M. Roman, The Daily Times


The importance of the Port of Chester along with other ports is cited in a study released last week by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia - "Assessing Industry Trends and Growth Opportunities for Delaware River Ports" - focusing on their economic impact and factors for future growth. The Port of Chester is analyzed, along with ports in Philadelphia, Wilmington, Del., Paulsboro and Camden, N.J., and Bucks County, among a total of more than 40 on both sides of the Delaware River.


"The study confirms what the chamber board has been a believer in for many years - Chester's success is critical to the vitality of Delaware County and the Greater Philadelphia region," said Delco Chamber of Commerce President Jeffrey Vermeulen.


"This is why we invest so much of our resources into helping the city tell its amazing revitalization story. We will be expanding our presence there in the near future as the city's economic turnaround continues."


Philadelphia's ports rank sixth in the U.S. in imported cargo value and 22nd in export value. The Delaware River ports employ 4,056 workers who earn $326 million and generate $1.3 billion in economic output annually.
Port activity in Greater Philadelphia supports 12,121 jobs, creates $772 million in income and generates $2.4 billion in economic output annually.


The study points out that in 2005, the Port of Chester's containers, as a percentage of port trade, accounted for 10 percent of the local ports' container trade weight and 47 percent of the value of container trade on the Delaware.

Overall, the ports of Chester, Philadelphia, Wilmington, Camden and Paulsboro handled 16 percent of container trade in the U.S. and 51 percent of container trade value nationwide.


Allison Kelsey, a spokeswoman for the economy league, was unable to provide what specific commodities or goods accounted for the trade value at the Port of Chester. She referred a reporter to Penn Terminals.

Joseph Ruf, sales manager for Penn Terminals, which is actually located on 71 acres in Eddystone, but commonly known as the Port of Chester, said he had no information available on the content of the containers. He said only the U.S. Customs Department would know that information.


However, the study states the facilities support the handling of Penn Terminals' key cargoes, including bananas, steel, forest products and project cargo.


Delaware River ports import nearly half of the nation's cocoa beans, almost a third of the bananas and a quarter of all fruit and nuts.


The region's biggest commodity is petroleum, which accounts for 65 percent of the region's import activity by value while fruits and nuts account for just 4 percent.


Also, a large share of the ports' exports are highly valued goods, such as motor vehicles, petroleum and military supplies, according to the study.


At the Port of Chester, Penn Terminals has retrofitted the former Sun Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. yard to handle both container and bulk cargo, the study indicated.


"Since purchasing the property in the 1980s, Penn Terminals refurbished two dry storage warehouses and developed 80,000 square feet of refrigerated storage space, increasing the terminals' total refrigerated storage capacity to 100,000 square feet," the study states.


The facility is situated between Philadelphia and Wilmington and about two miles from I-95, the report notes.
With global trade volumes rising and competition among East Coast ports, like Baltimore and New York, intensifying, the study team engaged a panel of national experts to better understand the range of trade activity the Delaware River ports could expect in the future.


They evaluated prospects for three growth scenarios and each one "anticipates dredging of the Delaware River channel to 45 feet, a baseline prerequisite that experts emphasized was absolutely necessary to simply maintain the region's maritime competitiveness," the study said.


Other key critical findings of the study, which took nine months to complete were:


  • Competing ports' investment in facilities and landside infrastructure has outpaced investment along the river;

  • Competition among Delaware River ports has weakened the ports' overall position among East Coast rivals;

  • Although shipping trends point to increased containerization, Delaware River ports' existing strengths in such cargoes as refrigerated commodities could be optimized.

In recent years, the ports' market share of national shipping has declined and could continue to shrink unless interests can come together with a strategy for potential moderate to significant growth, the study found.


"We are hopeful that this report will lead to productive actions to take best advantage of the ports as a regional economic generator," said Steve Wray, economy league executive director.


Peter S. Longstreth, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp., said they commissioned the study "to better understand the market forces that will shape demand for future growth so that we can be positioned to support appropriate port expansion in Philadelphia."