By Keith Norbury

A new facility for handling imports of European vehicles is the latest addition to services at the Port of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. The B.C. Vehicle Processing Centre will receive its first shipment of 400 automobiles in early March, said Ian Marr, President and CEO of Nanaimo Port Authority. That is when the Tranquil Ace, an MOL pure car and truck carrier, or PCTC, will dock at the port’s Assembly Wharf near the city’s downtown. The ship is scheduled to arrive at Nanaimo on March 7. Renovations to the 60,000 square foot building that will house the vehicle processing centre were 90 per cent completed by January. “But there’s always the odd little thing you can do around it to make it just a little nicer,” Mr. Marr said.

The port has partnered with Western Stevedoring and the auto division of Seattle-based SSA Marine, Western’s parent company, to design, build, finance, and operate the facility.

The vehicles will be driven off the ship to the on-land facility adjacent to the wharf where they will be prepared for distribution to dealerships throughout Vancouver Island and the Vancouver area. Eventually, the plan is to expand that distribution to western Canada.

Growing business at the port

“Vancouver is obviously the place where all the automobiles go right now,” Mr. Marr said. “We’re just trying to grow the business in the port and this is an opportunity for us to provide activity at our downtown terminal as opposed to our Duke Point terminal.”

Darryl Anderson, a transportation analyst based in Victoria called the new vehicle processing centre “a fantastic venture.” B.C. is a destination “for a very high number of luxury automobiles,” he said, and those B.C.-bound European luxury cars are typically off-loaded in Halifax and shipped by rail to the west coast. However, “there have been weather-related issues with the supply chain,” Mr. Anderson said. He also questioned the wisdom of putting luxury autos in railcars during the Canadian winter and potentially exposing them to the elements. Shipping them through the Panama Canal protects the cars in an enclosed environment.

Exactly which kinds of European automobiles are arriving in Nanaimo, Mr. Marr wasn’t at liberty to say, citing non-disclosures agreements. He wasn’t even sure which European port they are coming from.

MOL’s online schedule shows Tranquil Ace departing the International Car Operators terminal in Zeebrugge, Belgium on Jan. 25, and then reaching Nanaimo on March 4 after a number of European, East Coast and West Coast stops. No celebrations are planned for the arrival of the first PCTC in March. Mr. Marr expects that to come later in order to coordinate the event with all the parties involved, such as the National Trade Corridor Fund, which contributed $6.3 million to the $19 million project.

A second phase possible

So far about two-thirds of the $19 million has been spent. “The next third would be spent if business picks up enough that we can move into the next phase,” Mr. Marr said. In the first year of operation, a shipload of vehicles is expected to arrive every two weeks, with a total of 100,000 cars arriving in that first year.

During construction, 20 to 25 people were working on the warehouse, four or five on marine works, and another 10 on civil and electrical works. Mr. Marr wasn’t able to say precisely how many people will be employed at the vehicle processing centre, although he estimated it would be around 20 full-time.

Aside from a complete rebuild of the exterior of the building and retrofitting 30,000 square feet of the interior for vehicle processing, the project also involved adding a new dolphin to the 600-foot Assembly Wharf to accommodate the 200-metre long PCTC. Tranquil Ace and vessels like it are susceptible to wind movement because their hulls are like solid walls. “They’re not as low as some of the other ships you see around,” Mr. Marr said. “The big ro-ro carriers have always got a big windage to them.”

Cruise business declines

Other big ships are also coming into the port but not as many as in past years. Nanaimo expects about three cruise ships to visit this season — despite building a $24 million cruise ship terminal that opened in May 2011 adjacent to the Assembly Wharf.

In recent years, eight to ten cruise ships called at Nanaimo annually. Before the cruise ship terminal was built, 12 to 15 cruise ships would anchor in the harbour.

“And then they’d say we’d definitely be coming if you had a facility,” recalled Mr. Marr, who was named President and CEO on Jan. 15 but has been with the Port Authority and its precursor organization for 30 years. “And then you build a facility and everybody changes their minds.” Mr. Marr chalked that up to the nature of the cruise ship business, which plans its sailings more than a year in advance. Nevertheless, the port is looking to increase its cruise business “substantially” for 2020.

Island Ferry Services Ltd. has proposed running a passenger ferry service from the cruise ship terminal to Vancouver starting this summer. But those plans had yet to launch by press time.

Container business promising

Meanwhile, business is steady at Nanaimo’s Duke Point container terminal, which started its barge service to and from the mainland in 2012. It’s now handling about 45,000 containers annually compared with about 4,000 in the first year of operation. “We are looking to expand the facility out there if we can,” Mr. Marr said. The port is in the planning stages on that, and working with terminal operator DP World to investigate the business case, which might include handling container ships. “It wouldn’t be massive ones, but it would be ones that could serve Vancouver Island,” Mr. Marr said.

It would also make it easier for Island exporters to get their goods to market and provide another conduit for bringing goods to the Island, which has limited availability of supplies. “If you think back to the wind storms we had here in middle of December they caused quite a bit of disruption,” Mr. Marr said. “We ran out of everything in two days.”

DP World took over operation of Duke Point in 2011. Shortly after that, the terminal received a used 2008 Liebherr LHM 500S 104-tonne capacity shore crane that was supposed to replace an aging 40-tonne Canadian-made Canron container crane. But years later, the Canron, which the port acquired for $1 in the 1980s, is still in service along with the Liebherr. “But the new plan would obviously require maybe some different equipment to get everything the way we want it to be,” Mr. Marr said.

Bigger plans still ahead

In 2016, the port’s then CEO Bernie Dumas said Nanaimo was looking for federal money to help bankroll a $50 million to $70 million expansion of Duke Point. It would include a second berth 600 feet long capable of handling 4,500-TEU container ships. Mr. Marr said those plans are still in play, although work on them has been delayed since Mr. Dumas retired.

“We did do an economic impact study way back in 2013,” Mr. Marr said. “So, we’re probably due to refresh that study and look at what we’re contributing now as far as jobs in the marine sector.” On a similar note, the Port Authority held a job fair in November with several companies in marine-related industries such as Seaspan, B.C. Ferries, DP World, Western Stevedoring, and Pacific Pilotage Institute. “It was very well-attended, which was really good to see and encouraging that people are interested in marine positions and marine careers,” Mr. Marr said.

Also attending the job fair was Western Canada Marine Response Corporation, which signed a 25-year lease this summer with the Port Authority for nearly 130,000 square feet of land and waterlot areas to build a $10 million oil spill response facility. “They’re just waiting to see what will happen with pipelines before they start building their facilities,” Mr. Marr said.

More moorage envisioned

And this November, the Port completed design plans for a new downtown boat basin marina. Built over five years, the new marina would increase moorage by 50 per cent but on the same footprint as the original. The Port Authority has requested the federal government to help with the $15 million project cost, but has yet to receive a response to its application.

The marina is a focal point of the community for a variety of users including fish boats, tug boats, pleasure crafts, and visitors. “We’re just trying to make some changes to it and try to accommodate all those user groups within the downtown area and try to actually increase the capacity and the utilization there by everybody in the community,” Mr. Marr said.