Exports booming in Grays Harbor area

After years of watching its traditional log exporting activity dwindle, the Port of Grays Harbor says its efforts to diversify its business are paying off.

The port says its first-half export activity has more than doubled over the same period last year.

“The longshore union is telling us its members have already worked more through the end of May than they worked in all of 2009,” said Port of Grays Harbor executive director Gary Nelson.

Credit new niche businesses in soybean meal and auto exports for that volume increase.

The log business, which died off when Weyerhaeuser Co. closed its log export facility in Grays Harbor County two years ago, is reviving as new companies are exporting logs to China and Korea, said Nelson.

The port is seeking bids to build new rail infrastructure on its property to handle increasing volumes of grain and auto exports, Nelson said.

About $4 million of the cost of that new infrastructure appears to be assured. Sen. Patty Murray has inserted an appropriation for $2 million into a bill now being considered by Congress, and the Washington Economic Revitalization Board has promised a $2 million, no-interest loan.

Those two sources will pay for about 15,000 feet of new railcar storage tracks. The port is also applying for federal money to build an additional 20,000 feet of rail storage tracks and a loop to turn trains around.

The tracks will be used to store railcars awaiting unloading onto ships. The autos, most of them Jeeps, are being exported by Chrysler.

Most of those are destined for the Chinese market, now the world’s largest auto market. Nelson said the port expects to export about 20,000 cars this year.

Those cars formerly were exported from the East Coast.

Construction of the new railyard and new grain storage silos is expected to generate about 200 new jobs in the area.

Local employment is also being bolstered by the construction of new floating pontoons destined for the replacement for the state Route 520 bridge over Lake Washington in Seattle.

Those pontoons are being built at a waterfront site owned by Weyerhaeuser. Some 250 workers are being employed on the pontoon construction.

The new jobs are welcome in Grays Harbor County, which suffers from one of the state’s highest unemployment rates, 11.9 percent. The statewide unemployment rate in June was 8.9 percent.

If the port finds funds to build its $15 million in new rail facilities, it expects to handle $1 billion in new export and import activity between now and 2015.

Grays Harbor doesn’t expect its newfound business to threaten existing business at Columbia River or Puget Sound ports, Nelson said. The exports are new businesses that have been handled elsewhere or not at all.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663 john.gillie@thenewstribune.com