By R. Bruce Striegler

At first glance, the Vancouver Island city of Nanaimo may seem to be an unusual location for a yet un-named European auto manufacturer to establish a vehicle processing centre (VPC) for Western Canada. However, Ewan Moir, President and CEO of Nanaimo Port Authority, assures us that is exactly what is taking place. “Historically, the way European autos reach Western Canada is after unloading from ships at Eastern Canadian ports, they are shipped across the country by rail, then moved into holding yards and moved again by truck to the dealerships. Logistical challenges, delays, and costs coming across Canada opened people’s eyes to the need for change.” Moir mentions land prices in the Vancouver area as a further issue. “Dealerships were turning to the manufacturer and expressing concern about holding large inventories which were becoming an expensive proposition.”

Moir notes that with the opening of the expanded Panama Canal and the advent of pure car and truck carriers (PCTC’s), which carry approximately 8,000 vehicles per load, it became economically viable to sail from European ports to the western North American seaboard. He suggests that initial plans called for the VPC to be established in Seattle, with autos then trans-shipped to the British Columbia market, but capacity at the terminals in Vancouver were unable to handle more volume. Thus was born the plan for new European-built vehicles to be delivered and processed into Canada at a facility being prepared on Nanaimo Port Authority land, in partnership with SSA Marine, a Seattle, Wa based company that owns Western Stevedoring. Vehicle Processing Centres provide more than merely a place to unload cars, but also a location at which auto manufacturers customize standard cars with language-appropriate stickers and other detailing relating to country-of-sale requirements.

Initial trial in British Columbia, more manufacturers expected to join

Asked to define “western Canada”, Moir says that B.C. and B.C.’s Lower Mainland is the geographical trial point, and depth of distribution will grow from there. “We’re starting with one manufacturer, and that manufacturer has given SSA and Western Stevedoring the green light to seek other deals with other manufacturers. We know there is considerable interest, since the problems are universal. With the PCTC ships’ ability to deliver European cars on the Eastern seaboard, then move on to Mexico and then Western U.S.A., and finally reaching Nanaimo, there’s a change in the way these cars are being moved around the world.”

“Where do you find 17 acres of industrial land, adjacent to the water, where a vehicle processing centre could be established?” Moir continues, saying, “There isn’t a lot of industrial land sitting in the Lower Mainland, and what there is, is expensive.” He notes that this topic came up in meetings with Western Stevedoring’s parent company, SSA Marine, a Seattle-based operator of marine terminal and rail yard operations in more than 250 locations around the world. “The idea came from a combination of Western Stevedoring and SSA looking for a place to bring in European cars. It was our relationship with Western Stevedoring that started the conversation off, because we had the acreage.”

Nanaimo is a rapidly growing mid-island economic hub

Nanaimo’s Assembly Wharf historically was home to lumber and bulk wood products. Moir notes that there were two sawmills on site, both now gone, creating a 36-acre open space. “We were looking for a 17-acre site with space to grow,” adding that the new vehicle processing centre does have a plan for a Phase Two which would add approximately 10 acres to the original 17. The Assembly Wharf area contains two deep sea berths, which are 182.8 m in length with depth alongside of 12.4 m (40.7) and 11.7 m (38 ft.) respectively. The berths have ISPS certification. The estimated $18 million VPC project is set to open in January 2019, as the large car-carrying ships disembark between 400 and 500 vehicles at a time. Moir explains that capacity of Phase One, year one, will reach 10 to 12 thousand units, growing to 25,000 vehicles and phase two will enable handling approximately 45 to 50 thousand vehicles per year. He adds the new centre will also become an inventory site for dealers to call upon for specific colours or accessories. SeaSpan’s commercial ferry system along with BC Ferries provides speedy service from Nanaimo to the mainland.

The mid-island area which is located in the heart of Vancouver Island is primed for development and is emerging as a centre of technology and innovation. Compared to other metropolitan areas such as Vancouver and Victoria, the mid-island region is exceptionally affordable while still being highly accessible. During the past decade, local population changes and global economic trends have influenced the strength and diversity of Nanaimo’s economy. The mid-island area is diversifying, through the introduction of a service-based “knowledge” economy where value added services and manufacturing are gaining in importance, with less reliance on the traditional commodity-based economic model dependent on exploitation of coal and forest products. The City’s business community has grown by almost 25 per cent since 2002.