Port Hueneme, a niche port located just 60 miles north of Los Angeles, celebrated its 75th birthday in style this fall, hosting its first Banana Festival.
Miss Chiquita (a Carmen Miranda look-alike), dancing children dressed as bananas, and several dozen versions of banana food and beverage recipes starred alongside more than 5,000 bananas handed out to the crowd throughout the day. Free boat rides, a cooking contest and live music rounded out the carnival atmosphere.
But for Kristin Decas, the port’s executive director, the real star of the show was the port’s economic contribution to an area with an ailing economy. “We had our best revenue year as a port this year,” she said. “It was our fourth-best year in history for cargo volume. More than $7 billion worth of cargo was moved through the port.”
And, as she told the crowd, the port infuses about $200 million in the local economy each year and supports some 1,500 jobs.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, 716,166 tons of fruit crossed the docks, a 3.3 percent increase from the previous year, according to spokesman Will Berg. Banana shipments, which accounted for 615,588 metric tons, were down 3.9 percent from fiscal 2011. However, shipments of “other fruit” — mostly pineapples and melons — soared 91.3 percent to 100,786 metric tons.
Decas, who took over as executive director early this year, was anxious that the local residents know the economic benefits and jobs brought by the port to Ventura County.
Port Hueneme didn’t get swept up in the rapid growth enjoyed by its neighbors Los Angeles and Long Beach to the south. Unlike the San Pedro Bay giants, Port Hueneme is home to roll-on, roll-off cargo and refrigerated breakbulk vessels. In 2007, the port lost the fruit export business when Sunkist began shipping its oranges in containers through San Pedro. Fruit imports, however, remained steady.
When the global recession hit, the auto import business declined. Losing revenue from its two main business lines hit the port hard, and officials scrambled to cut costs. Little capital investment has been made in the past decade, something Decas and the governing Oxnard Board of Harbor Commissioners want to reverse.
The port collects no taxes and relies on the revenue it collects, making this year’s increase a ray of hope. In the fiscal year that ended June 30, it collected $12 million, up from $10.5 million in 2011 and $10.4 million in 2010. Operating expenses at the port have remained flat at $7 million since 2007.
To meet California air emissions standards, the port will have to install equipment allowing container and reefer vessels to plug in to shore-side power and turn off on-board engines while in port. The cold-ironing system is expected to cost $4.5 million.
Decas said port officials want to improve the port in other ways, as well. “We hired consultants to do a study on where we go from here,” she said. “We really want to strategize and prioritize.”
Port Hueneme has some natural advantages: It is close to major crop areas, has no traffic congestion and boasts excellent rail access. But the port doesn’t own a container crane or other container-handling equipment.
More container traffic is going through the port now because tenant NYKCool, which handles the Chiquita business, is using container vessels rather than breakbulk ships.
With that conversion this year, Chiquita is no longer leasing a sizable portion of the on-port refrigerated warehouse. Decas would like to find a new tenant for the facility.
Del Monte, the other major perishables customer at the port, is still using breakbulk reefer vessels, but with a twist. Del Monte has two vessel calls a week in Port Hueneme. Some of the ships in the service originate in Ecuador, the others in Guatemala.
The service is using new ships that are traditional breakbulk reefer vessels, but they have garage doors on the front. On the voyage from Central America, the space is used for bananas and other produce. For the backhaul voyage, Del Monte may haul trucks, farm machinery or other large equipment. Because of the roll-on, roll-off capabilities of the vessel, loading and unloading will be faster and less expensive than previous lift-on, lift-off operations.
“The Del Monte business is something we would like to build on,” Decas said. “We’d like to find more two-way business and more exports.”
Decas came to California after serving several years as executive director at the Port of New Bedford, Mass. “The ports are very similar,” she said. “Both have a lot of fishing boats in the fleet. Port Hueneme has a much larger cargo base, but the job is like my last one.”
While in New Bedford, Decas headed up a group trying to put together reefer breakbulk service from Mexico. That effort is continuing in New Bedford, and she said officials in Port Hueneme are also always looking for more services and more marketing opportunities.
Mike Fullilove, the Port Hueneme manager of Brusco Tug & Barge, said it’s clear the port has weathered the worst of the recession and is starting to rebuild business.
Brusco has operations at ports up and down the West Coast, and Fullilove said there is no doubt California regulations make it more difficult to do business there than in other locations.
Contact Stephanie Nall at email@example.com.