A conversation with Duluth Seaway Port Authority's eighth executive director

Five months after taking the top job in the local port, Deb DeLuca talked with the News Tribune about the transition last week by sharing some personal details.

t120618 --- Clint Austin --- 121218.N.DNT.PORT.C03 --- Duluth Seaway Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca talks with the News Tribune about the first five months in her job as the director.--- Clint Austin /
t120618 --- Clint Austin --- 121218.N.DNT.PORT.C03 --- Duluth Seaway Port Authority Executive Director Deb DeLuca talks with the News Tribune about the first five months in her job as the director.--- Clint Austin /

Five months after taking the top job in the local port, Deb DeLuca talked with the News Tribune about the transition last week by sharing some personal details.

She talked fondly of her family, seeming to share more about her 88-year-old father, Hector, than anyone else. A university educator and researcher, he still has a lab at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

A son of Italian immigrants, he was smart and a go-getter amid the toil of the Great Depression.

"He's a character. He's always fun to be around," DeLuca said.

Deb DeLuca was self-employed as a consultant for 14 years, working with the city of Duluth, Saint Paul Port Authority and others, becoming an expert in developing brownfields — previously developed land being given renewed purpose.


"I built up large grant portfolios and helped them manage those grants," she said.

She joined the Duluth Seaway Port Authority in 2014 as a way of becoming part of a team.

In August, she was hired to be the eighth executive director in the Duluth Seaway Port Authority's 60 years. What follows is a series of questions and answers with DeLuca, which has been abridged from the original interview.

Duluth News Tribune: Five months into the new job, how has the transition been?

DeLuca: It's a different job than my last job, which was government and environmental affairs director. You're overseeing everything, and any time you transition from a line work position to director position there is a big difference. All of a sudden, you're not doing the work, the actual nuts-and-bolts work. You're not making a deal come together. Ideally, you have a high-functioning team and they're all motivated to work together and you're supplying them with what they need. There is a really good team here.

DNT: You're the first woman to hold the port executive director position in Duluth, do you feel like a trailblazer?

DeLuca: The (Port Authority) board said they picked me because I was the right person for the job. And I believe that's true. I was very flattered and honored to hear that. But am I a trailblazer, because I'm the first woman? I think there are 14 port authority directors throughout the U.S. who are women. So I'm not the first. It's great, but what would matter more to me is that I do a good job here.

DNT: It took me awhile to figure out Duluth Cargo Connect. But it's using rail and trucks to move cargo containers through the port, right? It occurs to me that makes the port viable year round — you don't have this two- or three-month winter hiatus when the ships are docked.


DeLuca: That's right. That's one aspect of it. That wasn't the mode of force behind that deal happening, but it's part of it. I have to go back and explain Duluth Cargo Connect. What you're talking about is the (Canadian National) Duluth Intermodal Terminal, which is a partnership between CN and us.

DNT: So, it's a different thing?

DeLuca: Yes. Duluth Cargo Connect really is a brand that was launched to represent us when we go out to market everything we have to offer. The story behind it is when Lake Superior Warehousing would go out, they would leave a Lake Superior Warehousing card. And when the Duluth Seaway Port Authority was out, we'd leave a port authority card. So now when we are out, the whole logistics hub is marketed as Duluth Cargo Connect.

DNT: Best explanation I've heard.

DeLuca: When you say Duluth Cargo Connect, it is the brand and we offer many services. We have 400,000 square feet of warehouse. We've always had truck and rail in and out. It just hasn't been containers. The nearest container terminal had been in the Twin Cities. Cargo moves in containers these days. It's very efficient. It's a standardized size, but you need a terminal for the boxes to get on and off the train.

DNT: The steel industry will stockpile taconite iron ore pellets and wait out the offseason. But a container mover doesn't want to wait out anything?

DeLuca: Yes. The containers are a huge deal. One thing we do differently: the intermodal terminal in the Twin Cities, all they do is pick the container up and move it. They don't touch the stuff inside. We will. We have all this value-added service that Lake Superior Warehousing does. They'll palletize a big piece of equipment that can fit in the container and brace it. They'll empty super sacks and pour them into the container. We're a full-on logistics hub with a container terminal as a part of it. There are cities throughout the country that have tried for years and years to get a container terminal. I give all the credit to (predecessor) Vanta Coda. It was his brainchild, looking at this port right smack dab in the middle of the CN network. Why wouldn't this make sense? He and Jonathan Lamb (general manager of Lake Superior Warehousing) worked to line up a whole bunch of customers that were interested in it. At first, CN came to a meeting with the intent to say, 'Leave us alone already.' But they came to this meeting with all these customers lined up and thought it really did make sense and CN said, 'Let's do this.' It really was a silent coup.

DNT: I wanted to ask you a hard question: We know you're adding almost $3 million in rail infrastructure to the port. Is there another way to quantify the growth of container business in the past two years?


DeLuca: Yes. The standard way to measure is the number of lifts - the number of container lifts that you do at a facility. We projected out. We've hit all those markers along the way. I don't have the numbers in my head. Was that your hard question?

DNT: Yes, but you didn't quite answer it.

DeLuca: (Laughs) We are at 100 percent of what we projected. That's one measure. We are strapped for warehouse space. We thought we would do about 25-30 percent of value-added services, but I think we're at 90. The value-added component has really been sought after. Customers doing their warehousing with us are saving up to a third in freight costs. We have really good rail rates on our CN dock, which is served by four class I railroads.

DNT: Fair enough. You're running out of warehouse space?

DeLuca: We're strapped and that is really driving our next steps. We really need to address our space constraint. We are building a fabric warehouse this spring that's going to go on docks C & D (across the slip from the Clure Public Marine Terminal). A fabric warehouse. There are many types of cargos we can store there. They're airtight. It's got a robust shell structure and then a thick, dense water-tight skin or fabric that can be replaced 15-20 years out. Anyway, that's our first step.

DNT: The port is a unique intersection of old and new - fading coal shipments mingling with green energy such as wind blades and turbines; trains mixing with ships, some of which are on the cutting edge of green tech.

DeLuca: A port is a transportation nexus, so we carry what society uses, right? So the cargo that passes through all the terminals is reflective of what's being consumed by the community. It's interesting, because a lot of time society doesn't acknowledge what it consumes. I'll leave it at that.

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