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What Newcastle can learn from Seattle’s thriving, diverse port

Monday, 30 April 2018 | 00:00

We are in Seattle visiting our daughter and her growing family.

Seattle is perched on water, on rivers and lakes and a magnificent natural harbour that fronts the mighty Pacific Ocean. With these assets it isn’t surprising that Seattle is a port city, ranked three or four on most measures compared to all US ports. Yet Seattle is a small city – around 700,000 people – so there are lessons for Newcastle across this side of the ocean. An important one is that the Seattle economy thrives on the back of a diversified port. A bonus is that Boeing, its 20th century engine, shines on. Add in Seattle’s high technology sectors – it is home to Microsoft and Amazon – and you see a region well prepared for the disruptions of the 21st century.

Central to Seattle’s port is its container terminals. Seattle was an early adopter of container handling technologies in the early 1960s. Together with its neighbour, Tacoma, Seattle processes over 3 million TEUs (the standard 20-foot container boxes) each year. Two thirds of container imports are railed to Chicago for unpacking and distribution to mid-western cities. The remainder are unpacked in the local Kent Valley, home to massive warehouses including, of course, a giant Amazon ‘fulfilment centre’.

Remarkably, compared to most container ports in the developed world, Seattle doesn’t just send empty boxes back to China. America’s farming heartland fills container loads of stock feed for export through Seattle, including soybeans, peas, corn and lucerne hay. There are shipments, too, of apples and potatoes from local growers, and wood pulp from foresters.

Seattle is also a major fishing port serving as the base for the US north Pacific fleet. Around 500 vessels leave the port around this time of the year to fish the Bering Sea off Alaska during the northern summer. They make good money.

Conveniently, while the fleet is away their berths are occupied by cruise ships. This summer around one million tourists will enjoy cruises out of Seattle, with 70% of passengers arriving through the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, another Port of Seattle business. Each passenger will spend over US$1000 in transiting the city, meaning meat and gravy for local businesses.

The story of the success of the Port of Seattle started in the nineteenth century with the arrival of the private railways linking the Pacific northwest to the Great Lakes, what would become the world’s most productive industrial and agricultural region. However, the railway owners became not just big boys on the Seattle ports, but bully-boys who monopolised waterfront activity and maintained harsh conditions for local workers.

In 1911 Seattle’s municipal authority, King County, decided its port assets were too valuable to be lodged in greedy private hands. The county took back ownership and control of the harbour and its portside lands. The citizens of King County have maintained sovereignty over the port ever since. They directly elect the port’s commissioners and have a guaranteed voice at commission meetings. The financial and business affairs of the Port of Seattle are open for all to see. Moreover, the public, as owners, intervenes directly to ensure the port is environmentally sound and that its operations are unequivocally for the benefit of the regional economy. The public, as owners, understands that the port can be a major force in generating widespread, shared prosperity.

It’s such a contrast to the Port of Newcastle, our version sold off to private interests in 2014, with the shipment of steaming coal to Asia pretty much its only trick.

It’d be nice if our port were to have a 1911 Seattle awakening.
Source: The Herald

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