Last year was the most significant one in the history of the port of Hamilton and this year could be even better for Canada’s busiest Great Lakes harbour.

It wasn’t just because the port handled more than 10 million tonnes of cargo, including 1.3 million tonnes of foreign shipments, but also because of major construction contracts worth about $32 million that were launched on port lands, says Bruce Wood, President and CEO of Hamilton Port Authority.

He adds proudly that the financing for the construction contracts comes from the private sector and the port authority, without any need for bank loans.

“In 2008, we set a goal of $500 million in new projects for the port by 2020,” he recounts. “We’re way ahead of that target.”

He describes the process as bulking up the port as giving it the muscle for a prominent position in the transportation game.

So far, it has reached the $200-million mark of its expansion plan and if the projects currently in development pan out, 2012 could be a memorable one for the port, Mr. Wood adds.

In fact, major projects ann­ounced during 2011 by Lafarge North America, Parrish & Heimbecker, and Richardson International has the port feeling stuffed. “We’re running out of room,” he notes. “There’s not a lot of land left on the water so we’re looking inland for property that our customers can use.”

Traditionally, Hamilton’s main industry was steel, but with the main U.S. Steel mill still closed, the port has pushed ahead with diversification of its cargo base. The top commodities were agricultural products, salt, petroleum and break bulk commodities such as windmill blades and beer vats.

Overseas vessel traffic was up, with 108 arrivals, while calls by domestic and American ships were down, mainly because of the shuttered steel plant.

Shipments of project cargo were 52 per cent higher than the five year average. Agricultural shipments were 35 per cent higher than the five-year average, while asphalt came 12 per cent ahead of the five-year average.

Lafarge consolidated its concrete and construction material operation to Pier 22 and agreed to a $20-million site improvement project with the port authority. It will include an expanded dock wall.

Parrish & Heimbecker signed a long-term lease with the port and committed to infrastructure investments, including the construction of two domes for storing agricultural products.

Richardson announced a $5.5-million investment to expand its grain handling facility, including adding a third receiving pit and elevation leg, two new truck beam scales and extra office space.

A study released last year as part of an economic impact analysis of shipping in the Seaway-Great Lakes pegged the port’s contribution at $5.9 billion of economic activity and 38,000 jobs in Ontario.

Mr. Wood said that with CN and CP freight service, and ready access to major highways, the port is in an ideal physical spot. Fluke Transport Ltd. has set up operation in a massive new warehouse. “We’re close to Buffalo, Toronto and the railway intermodal operations in Brampton.”

When asked about prospects for 2012 beyond the potential investment deals, Mr. Wood simply says, “Steady as she goes.”