PORTLAND, Maine — In late March, when a container ship arrives in Portland Harbor carrying goods from northern Europe, it will be a historic moment.
Not since 1980 has Portland had direct container shipping service to Europe, according to Jack Humeniuk, a local representative of the International Longshoremen’s Association, the labor union representing workers at Portland’s International Marine Terminal.
Eimskip, an Icelandic shipping company, on Monday announced its plans to move its North American headquarters from Norfolk, Va., to Portland, Maine, with a goal to import and export all freight from the Portland waterfront. More details were revealed at a news conference at Portland’s International Marine Terminal on Wednesday morning.
The company will be carrying products from Europe, primarily refrigerated seafood at first, destined for the North American market, according to Larus Isfeld, the company’s Virginia-based senior manager.
Once unloaded at the International Marine Terminal, Eimskip’s ship then will be able to carry containers of products from Maine businesses, whether seafood, wood products or agricultural goods, back to northern European ports, such as Rotterdam, Netherlands; Hamburg, Germany; Helsingborg, Sweden; Immingham, England; and Reykjavik, Iceland, Isfeld said.
“There’s a lot of fish coming from the northern coast of Norway, out of Russia, out from Iceland and from the Faroe Islands, and those are all markets we touch,” Isfeld said. “And to connect the fishing industry in Portland with those markets in Europe I think will be very beneficial for the port of Portland.”
The new service “is going to be a huge boon for this area,” said Janine Cary, president of the Maine International Trade Center.
Because Eimskip is carrying its own import cargo, the service can be viable right from the beginning, Cary said. It doesn’t need a certain volume of goods to export to make it work because the ships already will be arriving with full loads, she said. That volume hurdle is one of the factors that hindered previous attempts to get consistent container service in Portland, she said.
Portland hasn’t had container service of any kind since April 2012, when American Feeder Lines went out of business. AFL had been a feeder service, meaning containers in Portland were fed to other major ports — primarily New York City and Halifax, Nova Scotia — to be loaded onto ships destined for ports around the world.
Since April, those Maine companies wanting to reach overseas markets have had to truck their goods to those ports, said John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, which operates the Portland terminal under a long-term lease with the city.
The difference with Eimskip, Henshaw said, is it’s a direct link.
“The real opportunity that I see here is for Maine businesses,” Henshaw said, and the “cost-effective access to markets and access to entirely new markets. There’s opportunity for our seafood processors and agriculture sectors stemming from Eimskip’s leadership in refrigerated container logistics.”
It’s not just large companies that import and export in bulk that will be able to take advantage of container service. From the beginning, Eimskip will offer “less-than-container load services from here into all of our ports in Europe,” Isfeld said, meaning small businesses that only want to ship a few pallets will be able to use the container service.
While Eimskip considered other ports in New England, it ultimately decided to move its North American operations to Portland because of the city’s relative proximity to northern European markets, its strong seafood and natural resource markets and because of recent infrastructure improvements that have been made on the city’s waterfront.
“We would have never come if it wasn’t for this terminal,” Isfeld said on Wednesday while standing in the sun under the International Marine Terminal’s crane.
The terminal wasn’t always so attractive. When it served as the passenger ferry terminal for the Scotia Prince and then The Cat, the building stretched almost the whole length of the pier, Humeniuk said, “so you couldn’t really efficiently work a ship of any volume.”
With $5 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the state renovated the facility, tearing down most of the passenger terminal building and strengthening the pier, beginning in late 2011.
Isfeld visited Portland after the improvements were complete. He was impressed.
“I came up here for a visit, and then I went to Iceland and told my CEO about Portland. I said it was a great opportunity to look at,” Isfeld said. “He said, ‘Don’t bother with Portland,’ because he had been here, and he saw the terminal when it was one-third of what it is today.”
Ultimately, nearly $8 million in state and federal funds is being invested in the International Marine Terminal, including $700,000 in improvements to make sure the facility meets the needs of Eimskip’s refrigerated containers, said Henshaw at the Maine Port Authority.
The first Eimskip ship is expected to dock in late March, though, “Nothing is set in concrete yet,” Isfeld said. “There’s a lot of moving pieces we need to work through before we make a definite date.”
Eimskip expects to employ two or three people in Portland from the outset, Isfeld said, but that number could grow.
Humeniuk estimates the shipping service also will create about dozen jobs for longshoremen in Portland, replacing those jobs that disappeared when AFL went under, but he expects that number to grow.
“We agreed we’d start off as lean as we could to get them established, because there’s a tremendous cost in relocating things,” Humeniuk said. “The way we structured it is, as they grow, we grow. That’s just common sense. As they build their business, they’ll need more people to work.”
Portland Mayor Michael Brennan on Wednesday praised the company’s arrival and the economic impact it will have, including additional jobs in trucking, warehousing and rail operations.
“There’s any number of different sound bites you can apply to this situation,” he said. “You can call it transformative, you can call this a game-changer, you can call it visionary.”
But it was collaboration, he said, that made it all possible.
“A number of different entities had the vision a number of years ago to come together to form this public-private partnership, to invest in the infrastructure here and to make to sure we had the resources in this area so that what’s happening today is exactly what we wanted to have happen: to have a major business come to the city of Portland and all of a sudden open markets to local businesses, and businesses throughout the state and region, in ways we haven’t had in the past.”