Things Looking Up At Illinois International Port District

Clayton Harris, executive director of the Illinois International Port District in Chicago, Ill., told The Waterways Journal that 2017 was a successful year for the port, which he hopes will carry over into this year and beyond.

The port district saw an 11.6 percent increase in revenue last year, in addition to reducing its debt by 61.6 percent, according to Harris. The port also began its infrastructure improvement project at 130th Street, known as the Butler Drive Project. According to Harris, this project and other port district infrastructure improvement projects will be funded by a $2.3 million grant it received last year.

“The full amount of the grant is going toward river-related improvements,” said Harris, who added that the grant funding is for the rehabilitation of Butler Drive. The project will update the main thoroughfare at the port district’s Lake Calumet facility. “Butler Drive houses all of our transit shed and runs the entire length of the dock,” said Harris. “It hosts both rail and road, too.”

Harris told The Waterways Journal that the port district was represented at the Panama Canal; hosted a U.S. Maritime Administration StrongPorts series; and traded best practices with the European Union Ports in northwestern Europe.
The port district was also invited to speak on panels as an industry expert last year for several organizations, including the National Organization of Minority Engineers, The Rail Supply Chain Summit, Illinois General Assembly House Committee on Transportation, and HwyH20 in Toronto, Canada.

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Other changes the port district saw in 2017, according to Harris, include replacing the roof and updating the port’s headquarters office, increasing its social media presence, engaging in an aggressive marketing and speaking campaign, and revamping its website.

“There is a genuine desire to see the port district grow and prosper, as evidenced by the past year’s commission of task forces created by the country, county, state and city, with the specific goal of benefitting the Illinois International Port District,” said Harris. “A lot of these were made possible through our relationship with our elected officials. Now our challenge is, ‘How does the port top 2017 in 2018?’’’

Harris said that while that is a great question, it can’t be easily answered. “It has to be thought out and logically approached,” he said. “First, we will continue to explore all available grant options, which could benefit the port, and we must aggressively go after each one. Strategically acquiring grant funding will allow the port district to continue on capital improvements and operational priorities.”

Harris added that these priorities will allow the port district to move beyond phase 1 and 2 of its Butler Drive project, address deferred maintenance at the port and aggressively market the port, its holdings and its vacant land. Currently, the port is seeking alternative uses for its north grain elevator, he said.

In a bid to improve shipping at the port, Harris told The Waterways Journal in late 2016 that he had discussed ways to improve the corridor between the Chicago port and the Gulf of Mexico with the incoming executive director at the Port of New Orleans, Brandy Christian. “I’m excited to see what we can work out in terms of a southern route between our ports,” said Harris. “I’ve also met with Ian Hamilton at the Port of Toronto (Canada) to work on a northern route. I have a lot of mentors who are port directors, and these guys want the Port of Chicago to be successful. A part of accomplishing that is letting people know that we are here.”

Not only is Harris reaching out to other port directors who ship cargo in or through Chicago, he is also reaching out to potential tenants to develop acres of space the port has available.

A Historical Shipping Center

Chicago was founded by an 18th century fur trapper named Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable and has had a long history as a center of commercial shipping. According to the port district, fur traders from the upper Midwest used Chicago as the distribution point for their products, as did Midwestern farmers and lumber producers shipping their products out East.

The Illinois and Michigan Canal, created in 1848, allowed for an unbroken inland waterway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. The port said on its website that this allowed for shipping to expand in Chicago as the emerging railroad industry was eclipsing the era of canals.

Port activities remained centered on the Chicago River until well into the 20th century. In 1909, the port wrote that the city’s Harbor and Waterways Commission offered a plan to construct several piers, leading to the construction of Navy Pier. In 1913, the General Assembly passed legislation that enabled the city to acquire, develop, and own and operate port facilities within the city limits.

According to the port, the Port of Chicago began in 1921, when the state legislature passed the Lake Calumet Harbor Act, authorizing the city to build a deep-water port at Lake Calumet. Later that year, Chicago adopted the van Vlissingen Plan, which remains the port’s basic framework for commercial shipping and industrial development.

Regularly scheduled overseas shipping service was established in 1935, and in 1941, the Chicago Plan Commission published an industrial development plan for the Lake Calumet area. Five years later, Congress authorized the Calumet-Sag Project to facilitate barge traffic between Lake Michigan and the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.

The Chicago Regional Port District was created by the General Assembly in 1951. A year later, the district was established as an independent municipal corporation with title to approximately 1,500 acres of marshland at Lake Calumet.

With the unofficial opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway, the revitalized port opened in 1958. In 1972, Navy Pier officially ceased operations of commercial shipping at that location, and the port district acquired an additional 190 acres at the mouth of the Calumet River, where it built two new terminal sheds and rechristened the site Iroquois Landing.

The Port’s Modern Landscape

The massive port resides near the border of Indiana, just south of Chicago near Lake Calumet and Lake Michigan. Despite its size, little is known about the port.

According to a Chicago Sun-Times article, the port actually has two centers of operation—the Lake Calumet Terminal, a 1,600-acre shipping facility, with wharves, silos, transit sheds and warehouses; and Iroquois Landing, a 190-acre parcel at the mouth of the Calumet River that opened in 1978.

Tenants at the port district include a range of industrial and warehousing firms, including Kinder Morgan, PPG Industries, North American Stevedoring Company and Norfolk Southern Railway Company.

According to a 2014 Illinois infrastructure report card compiled by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the port sees about 116 million tons of commodities shipped annually on the 1,118 miles of Illinois’ inland waterways, totaling more than $23 billion.

The waterway system, which includes the Mississippi, Illinois and Ohio rivers, in addition to Lake Michigan locks near Chicago, provides vital commercial shipping links for goods to travel throughout the state and country.

Much of the system, according to the report, was built in the 1930s with a 50-year design life. The aging locks and dams are now in desperate need of upgrades, rehabilitations and repair. This is another key point Harris said he hopes to address during his tenure as the port’s executive director.

Today, the port district moves more general cargo than any other port on the Great Lakes, with an annual total waterborne tonnage of more than 19 million tons, according to the district.