By Crystal Stevenson, Lake Charles American Press
June 28, 2015
Despite being out in the open, the Port of Lake Charles often works in the shadows of the public image.
“The Port of Lake Charles is a very integral part of the community here, and actually touches a lot more of the community than maybe the common person recognizes,” said Bill Rase, executive director of the Lake Charles Harbor and Terminal District.
Lake Charles has been a port of call since the early 1800s for sailing vessels navigating the shallow river to pick up cargoes of lumber. Today, the port is the 13th largest in the nation and leases much of its 5,000 square acres of prime real estate to many of the biggest economic players in the region that require deepwater access.
“Once all the LNG facilities are put in place, we’ll probably move into the top 10,” Rase said. “Current industrial sites that have been here for decades rely on the Calcasieu River Ship Channel, and deep-water access makes Southwest Louisiana an ideal location for announced projects.”
He said the announced industrial projects expected to be built in the area have really put Lake Charles on the map.
“With all the capital investments, its driving people to recognize the port around the world. We’ve had people in from Korea, China and so forth, they know where Lake Charles is now. That didn’t happen seven, eight, 10 years ago.”
Rase said the port is divided into two sections: cargo at port-owned facilities and docks and the ship channel, which runs from Calcasieu through Cameron Parish and 32 miles into the Gulf of Mexico.
He said the port plays a vital role in facilitating industrial expansion, meeting transportation needs of the current sites and growing cargo handling capabilities.
“If you take a look at the number of people who are employed along the channel — such as Citgo, Phillips 66, Axiall — the total employment plus the employment that feeds off of those particular companies, you’re talking about a very large piece of the community that is actually tied to the Port of Lake Charles.”
Rase said the port will likely be responsible for 40 percent of the dollar value of the exported products that leaves Lake Charles during the height of the industrial expansion.
“Without this channel, these businesses don’t exist and I think that’s what the community doesn’t recognize,” Rase said. “I think people underestimate what needs to be done and what has to be done in order to do that.”
He said if the channel is not adequately maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers the port “runs the risk of losing potential projects and damaging the current transportation capabilities, including 7.5 percent of America’s daily energy consumption that comes from facilities along the channel.”
“Basically with economic expansion I always relate it to a three-legged stool,” he said. “The only reason it’s here is that you have a deepwater channel of 40 feet, you have a pipeline system that is second to none, and then you have the ability for natural gas from the fracking process. If you kick any one of those legs out, the other two don’t need to be here.”
He said products made in Lake Charles are exported throughout the country.
“If you follow the pipeline system, we reach New York, Ohio and on and on in product that leaves Lake Charles that gets to those areas,” he said. “When you really look at the overall picture of the port, everybody looks at city docks as the port, well that’s really not the total port.”
He said the port has about 1,000 ships pass through each year. He expects about 2,000 a year at the height of the area’s industrial boom in 2020.
Rase said a study on the depth of the channel has found that the channel is capable of handling that much traffic, but will need to be dredged to meet the federal requirement of 40 feet deep and 400 feet wide.
“We have less than that now so we actually have draft restrictions which costs companies quite a bit of money because they can’t load their vessels to maximum depth,” he said. “We have dredges out there working now but we’ve had this restriction in place since December so each one of these companies will probably lose somewhere close to $1 million that they could have saved. It’s a big issue around the country. It’s not just here in Lake Charles.”
“If the channel is not wide enough and cannot allow more than one ship to pass, transportation will be significantly slowed and increased shipping costs will be passed to the clients,” he said.
Rase said the port plans to invest about $400,000 in infrastructure next year, including a new administrative building. They are also in the process of modernizing a transit ship and have recently added a loop track into the port to handle increased rail traffic expected to come with the opening of a new grain elevator.
Rase said the grain elevator is the first to be built in the Gulf of Mexico in about 50 years and is expected to move about a million tons of grain through the Port of Lake Charles.
He said the port is also opening a short-line railroad on July 1 to help move cargo.
Rase he said he understands why residents may feel the announced industrial projects are slow to come to fruition.
“I think what happens is the hype has outrun these projects,” Rase said.
He predicts that by 2017, there will be enough of a population increase in Southwest Louisiana “that you’ll definitely know you’re in a boom.”
He said the term “boom” adequately describe Southwest Louisiana’s good fortune.
“It’s actually a good word. It’s going to be a plus for this area without any destruction of physical property,” he said. “It’s important that the people recognize the boom will bring high-paying, good solid jobs and that something most areas can’t really claim right now.”
Something he said will also be necessary during the industrial development is worker villages.
“Where they happen will either be here or Texas. Most people say, ‘Well, gee, I’d rather they go to Texas.’ Well, if they go to Texas they’re going to take their money with them,” he said. “They’re going to take their tax revenue, they’re going to take the infrastructure that could be put in place here.
“They have to be in the right place, but they are going to serve a purpose,” he said. “You can’t put 20,000 people in here and build enough hotels and RV parks and condominiums to take care of them because when those 20,000 leave you’re going to have to take care of what’s left behind.
“These villages can come in, can serve their purpose and they can leave,” he said. “Is everybody going to be a good guy? No. But the majority of them will be because they have to keep their jobs.”
He said Pelican Lodge, a worker village set to house 4,000 people, will be built on port property on La. 397 and should be in operation by this time next year. The facility will provide housing, catering/facility management and transportation of workers to and from the various worksites.
Rase said the expected boom may be centered in Calcasieu Parish, but the effect will stretch through all of Southwest Louisiana.
“The port is the region’s largest economic driver,” Rase said. “This whole community has a large interest in what’s going to go on over the next five to 10 years in the development of the community and the port is going to be a big part of that.”