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Shipping link to Europe off to sluggish start, but Port Authority still optimistic

An arrangement that would connect the Port of Duluth-Superior with western Europe is off to a slower start than expected. Originally billed in 2014 as a monthly service from the Netherlands to Duluth's Clure Public Marine Terminal, the Amsterdam-...

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The saltie Florijngracht is seen through haze as it sits at anchor off of Park Point on Sunday. The ship is owned by Spliethoff, which is opening new trade avenues between Europe and the Midwest. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com

An arrangement that would connect the Port of Duluth-Superior with western Europe is off to a slower start than expected.

Originally billed in 2014 as a monthly service from the Netherlands to Duluth's Clure Public Marine Terminal, the Amsterdam-based dry cargo specialist Spliethoff's first vessel of the season reached the Twin Ports just last weekend.

The 448-foot Florijngracht anchored on Lake Superior off Duluth for a couple days before it was expected to dock in the terminal late Monday night or early Tuesday morning.

"I don't want to be pessimistic, but we were disappointed," said Ron Johnson, trade development director for the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. "These things happen."

Johnson explained that the strength of the American dollar coupled with a slumping European economy made it so that too many available ships were chasing a limited amount of cargo.

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"Things got tight on available cargo," Johnson said.

Spliethoff vessels made three voyages into Duluth last year. The company operates 50 relatively small ships - "tweendeck vessels," its website says - and has access to 100 ships total within a greater Spliethoff Group. Its nimble versatility is part of the Spliethoff appeal, allowing smaller companies with smaller loads access to the world's shipping lanes.

But, "there were so many ships available, especially bigger ships coming to the (East) Coast, that they cut their rates and it makes it difficult for Spliethoff to cut rates," said Johnson, who added Spliethoff would have been "crazy to operate just to lose (its) shirt."

For its part, Spliethoff is not giving up on the interior of North America. It is currently shipping twice monthly into Cleveland, a spokeswoman said, and also has reached ports in Milwaukee, Detroit and Toledo, Ohio. In June, Spliethoff's 411-foot Faglegracht became the first European ship to call on the port of Monroe, Mich., since the 1960s.

The port director there, Paul LaMarre III, told the Monroe News, "This is proof that our capabilities are far-reaching."

Spliethoff, too, continues to see value in reaching farther inland on the Great Lakes.

"Duluth is the key to the interior of the Upper Midwest of the United States and also branches to Manitoba, Alberta and Saskatchewan," said Spliethoff spokeswoman Jamie Tolis from the company's Montreal office. "It's ideally situated for us."

Inbound cargoes have buoyed the company's Great Lakes ventures to date. The Florijngracht, visible from Duluth as it anchored on Lake Superior in recent days, was set to unload generators from Finland. But it was scheduled to leave Duluth empty.

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"What's been tricky right now is outbound," Tolis said.

Tolis explained that Midwestern companies' logistical chains are well-oiled to ports on the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. Using the Port of Duluth-Superior may yet prove to be more economical and cost-efficient, she said, but there has been hesitancy in making the leap.

"Rome wasn't built in a day and this is going to take time to talk to people and to show them Duluth," Tolis said. "It's the innermost of the Great Lakes. We're getting there. We firmly believe in it. We're definitely invested."

Project cargoes, machinery and specialty grain products are the targeted outgoing cargoes, Tolis said.

While disappointed, the local port authority is willing to walk before running at full speed with Spliethoff.

"The company has been around for almost 100 years," Johnson said. "It's a well-managed Dutch company. We're confident the volume is going to pick up."

Duluth may have to get creative, he said, even if it has to utilize rail to other ports during the winter.

"We've got to fit into a nine-month slot and that's always been an issue," Johnson said of the traditional January-through-March shutdown of the Soo Locks in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., at the eastern end of Lake Superior. "Hopefully, we can build up this volume and get some type of rail service to bridge the winter."

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Denying Spliethoff the chance to build credibility in the Midwest would be ill-advised, Johnson said.

"Smart folks," he said, "don't just drop their sources."

Related Topics: SHIPPINGLAKE SUPERIOR
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