For many residents of New Orleans, it is easy to go through life largely unaware of one of the city’s most vital industries. The Port of New Orleans, despite occupying hundreds of acres of prime land along New Orleans’ most prominent geographic feature, the Mississippi River, tends to go about its business unobtrusively. Though anyone who strolls along the riverfront will see ships and barges plying the mighty stream, few give much thought to how important those vessels and their cargo are to the local economy.

The port, of course, or rather its early predecessor, formed the foundation of New Orleans, as early traders decided that a ridge along the great river, close to what is now the French Quarter, was a good spot for boats to load and unload cargo. Ultimately, the activity shifted upriver as the port built wharves that stretched along much of the Uptown riverfront.

The Port of New Orleans over time grew into one of the country’s great cargo-handling centers, where ships from around the world picked up or delivered goods ranging from lumber and steel to grain, rubber and petroleum products. As global commerce patterns shifted to focus on transporting cargo in large, boxcar-like containers that can be moved from ship to truck to rail, New Orleans responded with the construction of container-handling facilities that kept the city competitive with neighboring ports.

Recently, for the first time in a decade, the Port of New Orleans published a new master plan that lays out $2 billion worth of improvements and strategies to keep the port growing far into the future. Some observers think the plan has the potential to reshape maritime commerce in the local region.

One of the plan’s most important proposals is the development of a large container cargo complex on a 700-acre tract downriver from the city, in St. Bernard Parish. Such a substantial step into St. Bernard would be momentous for several reasons. First, it affords the port a crucial expansion opportunity as available land in Orleans Parish grows increasingly scarce.

Second, the move would address long-standing complaints by St. Bernard officials that the port has given short shrift to its downriver neighbor, despite the fact that St. Bernard Parish is within the port’s legal jurisdiction.

Most importantly, the expansion into St. Bernard could have a big impact on the regional economy by creating substantial new business opportunities.

Local economist and real estate analyst Wade Ragas noted that the port’s reach into both St. Bernard and, on the upriver side, Jefferson Parish, where the port could potentially develop new facilities on the west bank of the river, could produce a valuable economic boost for the whole region.

“A move into St. Bernard Parish could double the port’s current container capacity,” Ragas said. “A big container yard with cargo turning over every 48 hours or so would mean good jobs in an area that includes eastern New Orleans, where jobs are much needed.”

Similarly, if efforts to redevelop the site of the former Avondale Shipyards through a public-private partnership become successful, new maritime jobs could be headed for Jefferson parish as well.

In releasing the master plan, port President and CEO Brandy Christian said that the port is in a “unique position” with all “the rail and water connectivity of an intramodal shipping port.” She said the new plan reflects “the port’s bold vision to deliver significant, sustained economic benefit throughout our jurisdiction, which includes Jefferson, Orleans and St. Bernard Parishes.”

Christian added that the plan “challenges us to think more cohesively about growing” local maritime commerce.