Gulftainer keeps sights on lofty future for Wilmington port
WILMINGTON – Gulftainer has wasted no time in making an impact as the new operator of the Port of Wilmington, but it has had to navigate the uncertain waters of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The world’s largest independent port operator, based in the United Arab Emirates, took over the Port of Wilmington in October 2018 after striking a 50-year deal with the state entity that previously ran the port, Diamond State Port Corp.
Since then, Gulftainer has invested $118 million to repair the port’s eight berths, road infrastructure and warehouses while also installing additional crane rail, so that ship-to-shore cranes now run the length of the berths, and a new water pumphouse, according to Eric Casey, CEO of GT USA Wilmington, the local subsidiary for Gulftainer. The company has another $70 million in projects left to go, Casey said – meaning Gulftainer will nearly double the original $100 million capital investment commitment made when the state leased the property.
“We are in the process of building our rubber-tire gantry container stacks,” he explained, referring to the tracked cranes that can stack and sort the 20-foot standardized containers that house import and export products. “We’ve also finished the design on our new dry warehouse that we are going to start relatively soon. I say ‘relatively’ because with COVID-19, everything was slowed down significantly and we’re trying to figure that out now.”
Gulftainer is seeking to increase the number of containers that can be stored at the port by about 70%, rising from 350,000 to 600,000. That will be achieved by use of the gantry stacks to increase the height and density of container yards without having to expand the wharf’s footprint, Casey explained.
Increased collaboration, efficiency
A new face has arrived at the port to support customers’ needs once freight arrives in the country. Momentum Logistics, another Gulftainer subsidiary, opened its first U.S. office at the Port of Wilmington in March, bringing 30 jobs with it.
“When we got our feet wet here at Wilmington, [Momentum Logistics General Manager] Stuart Mainland determined that this would probably be a good opportunity for Momentum to join in,” Casey said. “Momentum is a very synergistic business to us, because not only can we take your containers off the berth, but now we can put it right on to the logistics trucks and take it right to your distribution center.”
The port itself has also seen lower unloading and loading times under the new owner. Casey explained that those efforts included consolidating the container yard and getting better productivity out of the rail cranes.
“Our ILA friends have been absolutely fantastic in showing us what they can really do in terms of safe, efficient and effective productivity,” he said of the hundreds of unionized port workers represented by Local 1694 of the International Longshoremen’s Association. “They really helped us change the dynamics by which were measured, so we were seeing an increase of around 38% in productivity across the board, across all volume.”
Part of Gulftainer’s efforts to maintain a good relationship with its union is to include it in a project being developed at the former Elbert-Palmer Elementary School in Southbridge. The port operator signed a 10-year lease for the property from the Christina School District in order to operate a training center for job applicants while also giving space to the ILA for a union hall.
“We want people to look at joining the ILA and see that these are these are career-oriented jobs and their families can have opportunities to work,” Casey said. “We’re also talking to a credit union that wants to set up shop in there to give people some financial opportunities as well.”
What the future holds
While Gulftainer waits out the impacts of the pandemic, it is also keeping its eyes on the future. The Port of Wilmington ranks as the 22nd largest container port in the country, but hopes to break into the top 10 in coming years.
Part of that will come through the signing of new shipping lines. Casey said that Gulftainer was in talks with 19 of the 20 of the world’s largest shipping lines, 17 of which would be new to the port. The pandemic has thrown a wrench into those negotiations, but Casey said he hopes to pick back up in coming months.
Key to that planned growth will be the development of a second shipping terminal a few miles to the north at a former Chemours plant at Edgemoor. The state purchased the site for $10 million just before the leasing of the property to Gulftainer, which now plans on investing at least $500 million to build a terminal capable of holding 1.2 million containers. The bulk of that investment will come from building a wharf on the Delaware River to receive ships hauling primarily dry container cargo.
“We’re going to be able to bring in bigger ships, 10,000 [containers] and up,” he said. “Right now, that’s bigger than we can handle here at Wilmington.”
Casey said that project, which is still in the permitting phase, had eyed breaking ground in 2021, but the pandemic’s impact may change the company’s timeline. Once built, Gulftainer believes Edgemoor will be a gamechanger for Delaware’s shipping status because of its unique geographic positioning, Casey said.
“Once you leave the facility, there is one traffic light between you, Canada, Miami, or Chicago. You’re within 24 hours of two-thirds of the U.S. population,” he said, noting most older ports in the mid-Atlantic are located inside cities. “We’re also the first port on the Delaware River from the Atlantic Ocean, saving customers hours of sailing time and a lot of fuel money as well.”
By Jacob Owens