Prince of ports

Struggling B.C. town puts hopes on a faster Asia to North America cargo route

Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2006

PRINCE RUPERT, British Columbia - Folks in this lonely frontier town like to say their dreams of becoming the Pacific gateway to Asian riches went down in the Atlantic.

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At the turn of last century, Charles Melville Hays, general manager of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and founder of the town, envisioned the rugged coastal community as the western terminus for his transcontinental railroad. He saw a major shipping port that would open a new trading route for Chinese silk.

But on his way back from England, where Hays had been rustling up finances, he accepted an invitation to sail the Titanic and met his fate that April night in 1912.

Today, after decades of decline, Ruperites are intent on reviving Hays' vision. They're putting their hopes on the cruise ships making the town a port of call on their way up to Alaska, and placing heavy bets on a container port intended to nab Asian cargo ships by cutting up to two days off their sailing time to North America.

"It really is going to, in my humble opinion, transform the economy for the entire region," said Don Krusel, president and CEO of the Prince Rupert Port Authority.

Prince Rupert - a North American Indian trading post for more than 10,000 years - was a thriving seaport for fishing and timber products, but never the international mecca for Asian goods Hays dreamed of. In the last few decades, the wild salmon stocks dwindled in the waters surrounding the city just south of the Alaska border. The pulp mill closed, the price for Canadian coal collapsed, real estate tumbled and banks foreclosed on homes and businesses.

Ruperites were forced to look elsewhere for work and the dejected population dwindled to 13,000, with 30 million Canadian dollars in annual revenue streaming out of the area over the last decade.

"If that were in Toronto or Vancouver, the federal government would have declared it a disaster zone," Mayor Herb Pond said.

The city is now counting on the 153 million Canadian dollar Fairview Container Port to keep its pledge of creating 1,000 new jobs a year and give a jolt to the town's sullen psyche when the first cargo container crosses its wharf some time next year.

"I carry the burden on my shoulders," Krusel acknowledged. "It is very difficult to be stopped on the street and someone says, 'Don, is this really happening? Because I'm about to hand over the keys of my house.' The future of this community is the port."

Fairview is poised to take away some business from big city seaports suffering from urban congestion as the global container industry is expected to double in the next decade.

Located 550 miles north of Vancouver and 40 miles south of the Alaskan border, the Fairview Terminal will be North America's closest major container port to key Asian markets.

It's 435 miles, or 36 hours sailing time, closer to Shanghai than Vancouver, and more than 1,000 miles and 57 hours closer than Los Angeles.

The to biggest partners are Maher Terminals of Canada Corp., which will operate the terminal and is investing 54 million Canadian dollars, and CN Rail, which has put 22 million Canadian dollars into the first phase. The federal and provincial governments also are contributing 27 million Canadian dollars each.

Other container ports, including Vancouver and Los Angeles-Long Beach, have larger capacity, but Prince Rupert hopes to offer a bypass of urban congestion so goods get to their markets faster.

Ruth Sol, president of the Vancouver-based Western Transportation Advisory Council, said there is a tsunami of goods coming from Asia to North America and her group predicts inbound containers are going to grow by 10.2 percent annually through 2015.

"We want to be sure that the West Coast of British Columbia becomes the gateway into North America," she said. "What the Port of Prince Rupert provides is an additional option; there is so much risk in putting all your eggs in one basket."

The first wave of ships to arrive were the cruise liners headed for Alaska. They began stopping by in 2005, with passengers able to kayak in the rivers, meander in boats around a grizzly bear reserve and visit the longhouses and art studios of Tsimshian Indians, who comprise more than half the town's population and are renowned worldwide for their monumental totem pole sculpture.

"It's nice to see the world - but it's nice for the world to come see you," said Matt Pederson, born and reared in Prince Rupert. A building contractor, he believed his family's survival was tied to the cruise ships, so he opened the Salty Crab gift shop in the trendy Cow Bay shopping district that runs along the harbor.

Adrienne Johnston, owner and chef of the Cow Bay Cafe, said she's excited about the new port and all it may bring; but afraid of it as well.

"I think in every sense of the word we're vulnerable," she said. "We have everything to gain and we have everything to lose; we're all wary of the downside. There will be a lot of new jobs, but we're going to inherit lots more problems."

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