On track to set yet another record for annual cargo volumes, growth in cargo volumes at Port of Prince Rupert show no sign of slowing down. That keeps the Port on a trajectory that started more than a decade ago when volumes were about half the present level of about 25 million tonnes, and which port officials expect to double again to 50 million tonnes annually by 2030. “That’s what we believe we will be handling in 2030, both through growth through existing capacity, expanded terminals and new terminal development, and also the diversification of what capabilities we have,” said Shaun Stevenson, Port President and CEO. Many of those efforts are either under way or imminent — bolstered in large part by over $150 million in funding commitments that the federal government recently granted to the port through the National Trade Corridors Fund.

Through the first eight months of 2019, overall volumes at the port rose 13 per cent compared with the same period in 2018. From January to August 2019, Prince Rupert handled nearly 19.5 million tonnes compared with about 17.3 million tonnes during those months last year. Should that trend continue — and all indications are it will — Prince Rupert will eclipse the record 26.7 million tonnes set in 2018, which surpassed by about 10 per cent the previous record established in 2017.

“In 2018, we shipped about $50 billion worth of worth of trade through this port. And so as we continue to expand, if we’re doubling our volumes over the next 10 years, it’s safe to say that we’re going to be coming close to doubling the value of trade through this port as well,” said Ken Veldman, the Port’s Vice-President of Public Affairs and Sustainability. “And at the end of the day, that’s really our purpose.” In fact, as noted in an economic impact report that InterVistas prepared for the Port Authority this July of 2019, the 2018 cargo volume was double the 2009 volume. In the same period, direct employment at the port doubled to 3,600 full-time-equivalent employees in 2018 from 1,460 FTEs in 2009.

“The rule of thumb is approximately half of those would be located in the Prince Rupert area,” Mr. Veldman said. With indirect jobs added in, the 2018 tally was 6,200 jobs — 1,000 more than just two years earlier.

The Port’s contribution to the B.C. economy is even greater — 8,000 FTE jobs, which earned $566 million in wages and salaries, generated $1.3 billion in gross domestic product, and boasted total economic output of $2.4 billion, according to the InterVistas report. The report calculated an average annual wage of $87,200 and estimated that 94 per cent of jobs were full-time and only six per cent seasonal.

“We’re a small town, with a big port. And we think over the next decade we will become the second largest port in Canada, and even play a more significant role in Canadian trade,” Mr. Stevenson said.

At present, Prince Rupert ranks third behind Vancouver and Montreal in value of trade. But in just two years — from 2016 to 2018 — cargo traffic volumes at Prince Rupert increased 41 per cent. Compared with the 2009 figures of about 12 million tonnes and 1,460 FTE jobs, cargo volumes and employment figures more than doubled by 2018, as noted starkly on a graph in the InterVista report. Another graph shows that the growth trend reaches back even further — to at least 2004, when cargo volume was less than five million tonnes.

The growth trend began even earlier, according to Mr. Stevenson, who joined the Port Authority 22 years ago, and was Vice-President of Trade and Development and Public Affairs for over a decade before he succeeded longtime President and CEO Don Krusel in June 2018. However, a key inflection point was the creation of the Fairview Container Terminal, which began operations in 2007.

“We were a bulk and breakbulk port,” Mr. Stevenson said. “And we started the initial investigative work and feasibility to develop container handling capacity at the Port of Prince Rupert. That’s been an interesting journey. At the same time, we saw some profound economic upheavals happen locally in Prince Rupert and across northwestern British Columbia. And through the leadership of my predecessor, and the thought and strategic discipline and commitment of the entire organization, we saw the development of Fairview Container Terminal and the development of the partnerships necessary to see that happen. And we continue with that, both in the growth and expansion of the container business, but as we look to advance other projects to grow and diversify the port.”

The Port is also a significant contributor to the coffers of all levels of government. In 2018, total taxes paid by the port’s employers, employees, passengers were estimated at over $125 million — $83 million to the federal government, and $33 million to the province. Of that, most was in the form of personal incomes taxes. Municipal governments collected $9.3 million, which included property taxes as well as federal grants in lieu of property taxes.

Among direct jobs associated with the port — rail and trucking account for the largest share — 2,083 person years of employment, or 57 per cent. Another 869 direct jobs are in terminal and stevedoring operations (24 per cent of the total). Marine activities and cruise ship related spending contribute 296 jobs (10 per cent); logistics and warehousing 108 jobs (3 per cent); and government agencies — such as border services, coast guard, fire and rescue, and policing — 116 jobs (3 per cent). “There are a tremendous number of businesses and organizations within this industry, both locally and through the corridor,” Mr. Veldman said.

The Port Authority itself has about 80 full-time employees. That’s a huge increase from around 10 back in 2006, Mr. Stevenson said. “It’s great to have such a solid and committed team here being part of all this growth and expansion.”

When Mr. Stevenson joined the Port Authority, it was “an enterprise in transition,” shifting from a regional gateway serving the hinterlands in such sectors as forestry, coal, and western grain to becoming a gateway “anchoring trade corridors connecting continents.” That transition involved modal changes — the most significant being the development of the Fairview Container Terminal in 2007. “I’ve had the benefit of being part of that journey. It’s been a great opportunity, and a great success, as well, as we’ve seen transition over the last decade to be what we are today, and the growth we’re seeing,” Mr. Stevenson said.

The future growth won’t happen, though, without confronting challenges — among them ensuring certainty that the projects can pass regulatory and permitting processes, and that the port can attract the skilled workforce to build the projects and operate them. “We expect 2,000 to 3,000 jobs will be created over the next decade with that expansion,” Mr. Stevenson said. “So, we need to look at attracting and building the workforce of tomorrow here.”

In the 1990s, Prince Rupert had a population of about 16,500 compared to 12,500 today. That reflected the decline of jobs in industries like fishing and forestry, which were the historic mainstays of the region. Mr. Veldman said the growth of the port in recent decades “couldn’t have happened at a better time in ensuring that it has brought some stability back to a labour force that had a lot of unemployment issues.” However, that growth is now starting to reveal different strains. “The focus has changed from how do we find jobs for local people to how do we find more local people to fill jobs?” Mr. Veldman said.

Mr. Stevenson said the Port’s job growth has helped the city turn the population corner, which should help attract more workers to the region from elsewhere. “And we’re working closely with both our other partners and the City of Prince Rupert to ensure that we can build a world class port city here, not just the port.”

Mr. Veldman cited three other areas of focus:

  • “making sure that we’re getting the right pieces of infrastructure in a timely manner; and that we’re executing on that level of responsibility;”
  • “ensuring that our engagement with our communities and local First Nations continues to be well-aligned, and that we continue to have strong support and engagement with those key partners,” and
  • “it’s also about how we grow — ensuring our safety, from a marine perspective, that we continue to grow that capacity and manage marine risk.”

Compared to bigger ports in urban areas, one advantage that Prince Rupert has is fewer conflicts with dense populations that neighbor its properties and operations, said Brian Friesen, the Port Authority’s Vice-President of Trade Development and Communications. “When a train leaves Fairview Container Terminal, it’s on the main line, and, and it’s going to market,” Mr. Friesen said. “We don’t have a lot of congestion here, and we also benefit from strong community support for growth and expansion,” he added, while also praising the members of the International Longshore Workers Union, who have “really earned the business over the years.”

Prince Rupert has long been touted for its advantage as Canada’s closet port to the emerging markets of Asia. That it is now capitalizing on that advantage should come as no surprise. “The attributes of Prince Rupert go back to its roots over 100 years ago, where it was selected to be a strategic gateway for trade with Asia by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway,” Mr. Stevenson said. “Those are the same attributes that are fundamental to our future growth and expansion.”

The organization is striving to convert those attributes, which also include its deep natural harbour, into supply chain optimization advantages, he said. “The growth has been achieved because we have the best service through Prince Rupert and to key markets in North America than any of the West Coast gateways,” Mr. Stevenson said.

Seizing those natural advantages, however, requires hard work — particularly on the import side because of the lack of a large local market. “All of that cargo is going to inland markets, and therefore it has choice,” Mr. Friesen said. “It’s important that we continue to earn the business and perform well. So, it may start with locational advantage, but it’s really about how we activate that and build on that.”

Shipments of auto parts are among the largest freight categories that come through the gateway. Other imports include just-in-time components, as well as textiles, footwear, and apparel, and electronics. They go to destinations in the middle of the continent like Detroit, Memphis, and Toronto. “Any kind of supply chain that values speed and reliability tends to use Rupert,” Mr. Friesen said.

Bolstering the port’s advantages are its partners such as DP World, which operates the Fairview Container Terminal, and Canadian National Railway, which provides that crucial link to those markets in the North American heartland. “CN has been a huge partner in the growth and success of the Prince Rupert container story,” Mr. Friesen said. That includes significant investments in the northern corridor, such as new sidings and siding extensions. DP World has “been a fantastic partner of ours, and they continue to make substantial investments in terminal capacity,” he added.

Mr. Veldman said the Port has “been fortunate to find the right partners” that not only share its strategic vision, “but quite frankly, are extremely good at what they do.” “If it wasn’t for that, and everybody being able to play at that level, we wouldn’t have achieved what we have achieved,” Mr. Veldman said.

Among the most significant partners are local First Nations. Those partnerships manifest through First Nations-owned businesses, such as the Metlakatla Development Corporation, joint ventures, and First Nations employment. Based on local surveys, about 35 per cent of local gateway or port-related labour force reports a First Nations background, he said. “And that mirrors the general demographic breakdown of the local working-age population as a wholel,” Mr. Veldman said. “That is certainly something that we’re very proud of — that this has been a broad expansion in every sense of the word.”

The total value of imports going through Prince Rupert in 2018 was nearly five times the value of exports, according to the InterVistas analysis. The report gave estimates for three scenarios in 2019 dollars, ranging from $31.7 million to $57.0 million for imports, and from $7.8 million to $10.6 million for exports. The middle estimates were $44.3 million for imports and $9.2 million for exports, giving a total of $53.5 million.

“We have seen tremendous growth in our import volumes for containerized products over the years, and we anticipate that growth to continue, particularly with investments in new terminal capacity,” Mr. Friesen said. “And so it’s important to also ensure that we see growth in the export volumes to ensure balance. One of the ways we’re looking at doing that is to create large scale, export transload capacity in Prince Rupert — to ensure that we can grow laden export volumes and achieve balanced two-way trade.” He cited the development of the Ray-Mont Logistics facility at the port two years ago as “a resounding success” in that regard. Built on a 12-acre site on Ridley Island, the facility is surrounded by a 100-car rail loop corridor and includes a modern conveyance system and grain dumper pit. “It’s important for us to to add value to Canadian export supply chains,” Mr. Friesen said.

Statistics to date this year reveal that the port authority has plenty to feel good about. Increases in container volumes (by 18 per cent), and the Ridley Island coal terminal (by 16 per cent) accounted for most of the growth from January to August 2019 compared with the first eight months of 2018. Grain volumes increased six per cent, to 3.6 million tonnes. That was paced by an increase of eight per cent in wheat, which makes up the lion share of the port’s grain exports, to 2.6 million tonnes. Canola volumes, however, dropped 13 per cent to 837,869 tonnes.

As harbinger of the port’s changing cargo mix, log exports from the harbour dropped 35 per cent in the first eight months of 2019 to 237,465 tonnes. However, logs volumes from the harbour actually increased nine per cent in 2018 compared with 2017.

“All the cargos going through here are discretionary,” Mr. Stevenson said, “Shippers have a choice for all of them. So if we’re going to be relevant, and fulfill our mandate to support Canadian trade, we’ve got to think about how we can innovate and develop better systems.”

According to Mr. Veldman that innovative thinking is well underway. “I think we’ve got a really firm grasp on what our next ten years look like,” Mr. Veldman said. “And as we move through these ten years, we’re going to keep that future focus. And I guarantee that ten years from now, we’ll have a really good grasp on what the next ten years after that look like as well.”