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New developments ahead for Great Lakes ports as 2023 shipping season kicks off

Port Milwaukee sees addition of multimodal grain facility while Port of Duluth-Superior adds more container shipping service

Officials “break ground” on Port Milwaukee’s new DeLong Agricultural Maritime Export Facility on Wednesday. While construction has not yet started, the crew dug into a bin of dry distiller’s grain, which will be one of the main exports from the new facility. Christine Hatfield/WPR.

Great Lakes ports are gearing up for the start of this year’s shipping season, which is bringing new developments at ports in Duluth-Superior and Milwaukee. The Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway opened to the first vessels of the season Wednesday, and the Soo locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan open on Saturday.

For the first time in years, container shipping service returned to the nation’s furthest inland port in 2022. With the expansion of service, the Port of Duluth-Superior became the only U.S. port besides Cleveland, Ohio, capable of handling maritime container shipments on the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway System.
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Now, the port is partnering with Amsterdam-based Spliethoff, which is one of the largest shipping lines in the Netherlands. Spliethoff will provide monthly container shipping service to the port for the first time in decades, according to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. Port officials say they’ll be capable of carrying raw materials, finished goods, and machinery. Goods will be shipped back and forth to Europe.

“That’s a big win from a supply-chain perspective for the region,” said Deb DeLuca, the port authority’s executive director.

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Shipping customers have been seeking other options for container shipping in the face of inadequate rail service and congestion at coastal ports. DeLuca said a global shortage of containers due to supply chain constraints in recent years appears to be easing. The port authority is also planning an $8.5 million expansion of its warehouse space with the addition of 55,000 square feet to support materials moving through its terminal.

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In Milwaukee, construction of the roughly $35 million DeLong Agricultural Maritime Export Facility is ongoing. Jackie Q. Carter, director of Port Milwaukee, said that will introduce new cargo in the form of dried distillers grains — a byproduct from beer and ethanol production that is used in livestock feed.

“We’re hoping in the next few weeks that construction will wrap up,” Carter said. “Of course, you got to go through and make sure everything is sound and ready to go, but we think we’ll probably see some activity as early as May.”

Carter said the final parts of rail construction and inspection are ongoing right now. She said they anticipate the facility will increase tonnage moving through the port by about 400,000 metric tons. The port handled about 2.3 million metric tons last year, which was down about 5 percent from its five-year average.

In the Port of Duluth-Superior, last year marked the lowest year for grain exports since 1890, falling to roughly 644,000 tons. Port officials say it’s difficult to project whether those exports may rebound. DeLuca noted a strong dollar is making it more expensive to move wheat out of Midwest markets compared to international sources. She also highlighted volatility due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Deb DeLuca
Deb DeLuca, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, and Kristen Vake, executive director of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, detail expectations for the 2023 shipping season.
Danielle Kaeding/WPR

Overall, the port shipped more than 30 million tons of cargo last year, which was down about 2.3 percent from the five-season average. That includes around 19 million tons of iron ore cargo, making up more than half of all tonnage. The port moves more iron ore than any other North American port from mines on Minnesota’s Iron Range, according to the Duluth Seaway Port Authority.

The Lee A. Tregurtha was the first vessel to leave the port on Thursday, and the American Mariner was loading iron ore at the CN docks in Duluth. DeLuca said they’re expecting a good year for iron ore shipments.

“Iron ore is absolutely the king cargo through our port,” DeLuca said. “Minnesota is critical to the nation’s steelmaking supply chain because of the cargo that moves on ships down to the steelmaking facilities on the lower lakes.”

Kristen Vake, executive director of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota, said demand for steel is strong. U.S. Steel, one of the nation’s largest steel companies, projected demand will grow this year, according to Bloomberg News. Even so, the company’s CEO warned that a mild recession is possible in the second half of the year.

Cruise ships return to Great Lakes ports

Last year also marked the first return of cruise ships to Port Milwaukee since 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic halted travel for cruise ships when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order at the onset of the public health crisis.

The number of cruise ships has tripled since 2019 with 33 visiting the port last year, and the port saw 13,000 passengers. That’s roughly four times the number of passengers from pre-pandemic levels.
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“We also are in the process of designing a new cruise dock so that we can continue to see that part of our business grow,” Carter said.

The Port of Duluth-Superior also saw cruise ships return last year for the first time since 2013, according to port officials. Last year, the Twin Ports welcomed nine cruise ships and more than 5,000 passengers.

DeLuca said they expect a successful cruise season this year as Viking launches turnaround stops in Duluth.

“Which means that voyages start and end in Duluth,” DeLuca said. “And, of course, that’s a benefit to Duluth because that means people are coming to stay ahead of time and/or afterwards.”

Port Milwaukee sees first woman, person of color as director

In Milwaukee, Carter is the first woman and person of color to lead Port Milwaukee’s operations. She’s also the only Black person to lead a port authority in Wisconsin. Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson selected Carter to serve as port director in January.

“When you’re the first, your responsibility is to make sure you’re not the last, and so that’s really my focus,” Carter said. “I think that’ll help us make sure that the community is engaged in what we do. We’re looking to partner with some of our schools and educators in the area to make sure that they understand what the possibilities look like for the maritime industry.”