The Port of Greater Baton Rouge. (Photo by Brian Baiamonte)
Like many industry sectors, shipping has changed significantly over the past 35 years. Back in the 1980s, ships that would be small by today’s standards traveled upriver as far as Baton Rouge to pick up 15,000- or 20,000-ton shipments of general cargo—anything from paper and electronics to cars and trucks.
For the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, which specialized in general and break bulk cargo, the model worked well and the port was among the 10 busiest in the nation in terms of general cargo.
But from the mid-’80s through the early 2000s, the shift towards containerization, the increasing use of ever larger vessels and technological advances had radically altered the landscape. For the Port of Greater Baton Rouge, those changes were hard to adapt to and it lost market share.
When Executive Director Jay Hardman came to the port in 2000, just 15 vessels were docked there. In the years since, however, the port has taken aggressive steps to remain competitive, diversifying its revenue stream, developing and leasing facilities for private tenants, and investing in technology.
Today, the port has some 200 vessels that regularly call on its public and private facilities, and the number of those private facilities has grown. In 2013, Louis Dreyfus Commodities acquired the port’s 54-year-old grain elevator from Cargill and embarked on a $150-million expansion and modernization of the facility.
In 2014, Houston-based Genesis Energy invested $150 million in an oil storage and import/export terminal on 91 acres of port-owned property.
And in 2015, Drax Biomas completed construction of two massive dome-shaped facilities where it stores wood pellets from its manufacturing plants in Bastrop and Gloster, Mississippi, before shipping them overseas for fuel.
As a result of such investments, the value of the port’s assets has increased three-fold since the early 1980s, from $33 million to more than $99 million.
During the same period, its total tonnage has increased a respectable 26% or so, and has shifted from general and break bulk—logs, for instance—to bulk, mainly grain and petroleum products.
Though the port does not rank among the nation’s container ports, it has recently worked its way back into the top 10 largest ports in terms of tonnage after losing ground in the 1990s and 2000s.
“We’ve had to find our niche and be competitive in other ways,” Hardman says.