At a time when technology and other “new economy” jobs continue to expand and garner business headlines for helping to diversify local commerce, a nod to a more traditional industry may be in order.

For decades before New Orleans began to gain respect as nurturer of young entrepreneurial talent, the oil and gas industry, tourism and maritime commerce were the primary drivers of local economic activity.

Today, that three-legged economic stool continues to support tens of thousands of local jobs, even as growth in “sexier” sectors, such as video game development and film production, make news.

Of the city’s trio of traditional industries, maritime commerce is the one that tends to grab the least attention. But the fact is, cargo moving through the area via the Mississippi River and a host of linked transportation modes remains a powerful driver of business growth.

The Port of New Orleans is the modern-era successor to commercial encampments that early explorers built on the lower Mississippi River. The river commerce they started formed the cornerstone for development of a city called La Nouvelle Orleans, and today New Orleans’ maritime legacy lives on in cargo trade that ranges from grain and rubber to oil and petrochemicals.

Figures compiled by the University of New Orleans show that foreign-trade cargo through the Port of New Orleans jumped 27 percent in 2014, the most recent year for which complete figures are available.

Both imports and exports grew by double-digit percentages in that period, with exports climbing 38 percent.

While the local port has set many records in terms of total tons of cargo moving across its docks, most of that tonnage in decades past derived from bulk cargoes such as grain and petroleum, which filled ships but, because of automated loading processes, didn’t necessarily generate many jobs for cargo handlers.

As the port shifted its focus to goods carried in the boxcar-like containers that have come to predominate in modern cargo transportation, both jobs and revenue have grown.

Last year, for the first time in its history, the port handled more than a half-million containers, which moved between ships, trains and trucks for transportation to and from the interior of the country and ports around the globe.

The New Orleans port in 2015 set a 14-year high in cargo volume, and Port President Gary LaGrange cited banana imports, and paper and chemical exports as sources of growth.

Concern arose in recent months as to future cargo growth when the Chiquita Brands company, which two years ago returned its banana trade to local docks after a decades-long absence, began making noises about relocating its cargo-handling again. At press time, port officials were still trying to ascertain the intentions of the company, which was acquired by a Brazilian business last year.

Meanwhile, the port hopes to continue tapping into the global trend toward increased container cargo and larger ships that can carry thousands more of the big steel boxes than ever before. Because the containers are easily off loaded from ship to trucks and rail carriers for fast movement to their end users, a huge variety of goods – ranging from food and clothing to washing machines and even automobiles – can move with surprising speed between far-flung destinations.

In New Orleans, this trend has led to the development of a new cargo-handling complex called the Mississippi River Intermodal Terminal.

With a rail yard crisscrossed by a few thousand feet of track and featuring rubber-tired gantry cranes that lift and move the heavy containers from one carrier to another, the terminal was designed for the future, as it’s equipped to handle five times as much cargo as the port is currently handling.

A four-acre concrete marshalling yard allows ample space for trucks and equipment to move around the site.

“The new terminal will facilitate the movement of marine and rail cargo, stimulate international commerce and enhance safety,” LaGrange said in dedicating the facility earlier this year.

He says the terminal also brought the port increased storage capacity, with nearly 400 “parking” slots, each of which can accommodate loaded containers stacked five high.

By replacing an older rail yard with one that shifted the tracks away from the waterfront, the port opened marshalling space that will enhance the planned expansion of the Napoleon Avenue Container Terminal, which is the port’s flagship cargo-handling complex.

In addition to setting local records in container cargo, the port has recently reached new heights in passenger transportation. Local cruise ship terminals handled more than 1 million passengers in 2015, marking the fifth consecutive year of breaking records.

The figures “illustrate how popular the port and the city of New Orleans are with cruise passengers throughout the nation,” LaGrange says.

Miami-based Carnival Cruise Line boosted its local capacity by a third in April when the Carnival Triumph replaced an older ship and joined the Carnival Dream in offering four- and five-day cruises from New Orleans.

Other carriers with New Orleans-based itineraries include Norwegian Cruise Line, American Queen Steamboat Company and American Cruise Line, which has added a third riverboat to its home-ported fleet in the city.

The Port of New Orleans ranks sixth among U.S. cruise ports, with industry spending in Louisiana totaling $400 million and supporting more than 8,000 jobs, according to research by Cruise Lines International Association.


LaGrange to sign off in 2017
A leader in New Orleans maritime commerce business has announced plans to sail into the sunset next year. Port of New Orleans President and CEO Gary LaGrange, who has held that position for the past 15 years, will retire in April 2017. Coming to the port after heading up the Port of Baton Rouge, LaGrange led the local operations through the crucial rebuilding period after Hurricane Katrina.

The port’s board of directors announced that Brandy Christian, who now is chief operating officer, will succeed LaGrange.