, Port Arthur, Texas


June 6, 2013

Port of Port Arthur: Growing the dream

Editor's Notes

PORT ARTHUR — You can see excitement in their eyes once you get Floyd Gaspard and Larry Kelley talking about the new expansion at the Port of Port Arthur. They are changing the skyline of the city’s waterfront as five new silos rise more than 100 feet into the air, reflecting the glint of afternoon sun off their silvery surfaces.

Gaspard, executive port director, and Kelley, deputy port director, are leading the port into a new venture that is resulting in tens of millions of dollars being invested in permanent improvements at Port Arthur’s public port — and none of it is from local taxpayers. A German company, German Pellets, is building the silos at the port and a mill in Woodville to produce and ship wood pellets to Europe where they will be burned in the place of coal to create electricity.

Gaspard and Kelley donated an afternoon last week to educate a publisher and an editor about that project and about what the port means to Port Arthur. We started out at a conference table in the Port’s office building where they patiently answered questions about the port. Gaspard, a 28-year veteran of the port, pointed out that we were sitting beneath framed original drawings of the Port Arthur ship channel sketched by Robert Gillham in the 1890s. Gillham Circle in Port Arthur still bears the name of the New York engineer who laid out the township of Port Arthur.

“The port opened up in ‘69,” Gaspard said, leaning back in his chair. He has a comfortable way of talking, an obvious deal maker. “It’s the newest public port on the Gulf. It’s certainly one of the smallest. We’re very aggressive, and what most people around here don’t realize, even though we’re a political entity, kind of a quasi public entity, we have to compete for everything we have. ... If we don’t take care of our customers they go somewhere else.”

Kelley, Gaspard’s protege who is the presumptive executive director in training, leans forward when he talks as though the port were the most important subject that could be discussed.

“The competition may not be next door, they may be 600 miles from here and they may have a well-heeled sales staff that would like nothing better than to relive us of all that congestion — in a heartbeat,” Kelley said.

After all the talk it was time for the main attraction, a tour of the port and look inside the new silos. We all donned plastic hard hats and put on fluorescent vests to give us that official “visitors” look, then piled into Kelley’s pickup for the ride over to the port.

First we had to go through security, “a result of 9-11.” An ID card was swiped before heavy gates opened to allow access to the port. “Before then there was a hand recognition system,” Kelley said, a fancy name for giving a wave to the guard shack.

The pickup drove up onto the waterfront dock near the legendary gantry crane — Big Arthur. The operator was high above us in the cab of the crane, which can move up and down the length of the dock on railroad tracks. He was gently picking up tons of steel rail shipped in from Japan and was placing it on rail cars that would transport it to its destination at a rail yard expansion in Shreveport, La.

From there the pickup drove through some of the half-million square foot of ultra modern warehouse space — with the dock for ships on one side and rail lines for trains on the other — that makes the Port of Port Arthur such an efficient handler of cargo. Inside we saw some of the white bales of Brazilian eucalyptus pulp that will become Viva, Cottonelle, Bounty, “the good stuff,” as Kelley put it.

Then we reached the area where crews are building the five silos for the wood pellets. An average of about 80 contractors a day are working to have the facility ready for its first shipments in July. Each of the silos stands 112 feet tall and is 105 feet in diameter, enough to hold 15,000 tons of wood pellets, enough to fill 130 Olympic sized pools. An NBA basketball court could be set up inside a silo and there would be plenty of room for the cheerleaders at both ends of the court.

An underground tunnel, with a conveyor system inside, connects each of the silos. The conveyor continues out to the dock where it will carry the pellets to a waiting ship. Trucks will operate around the clock, starting at a pace of 70 or 80 truckloads a day, increasing to 100 truckloads daily from Woodville to Port Arthur as operations reach full speed.

As massive as the silos are, they are dwarfed by the cargo hold of the cargo ship. One ship will empty three of the silos plus about half of another one. The first of the ships is scheduled for July and the activity on the Port grounds shows the urgency of the deadline.

The Port of Beaumont is much closer to the Big Thicket wood pellet mill, but the Port of Port Arthur was able to win the project because our port leaders had a vision and the willingness to make it happen. A long-term contract, more work on Port Arthur’s waterfront to support more families, and international recognition as a port that works with its customers are all winners for Port Arthur.

As we piled back into the pickup and continued our tour of the Port’s waterfront, we drove under the MLK bridge and surveyed another mile or so of prime Port Arthur waterfront property — all the way to the Motiva gates — the Port has acquired. There are more long-term projects in the works, Gaspard assured us.

Arthur Stilwell selected the site for Port Arthur because “the Brownies” advised him in dreams where to locate the town that would connect his Midwest railroad to the shipping lanes of the Gulf of Mexico. The shining new silos rising over the waterfront to stand next to Big Arthur show that more than a century later new visionaries are keeping Stilwell’s dream of a port city alive.


Twitter: @RogerCowles

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