Through a variety of powerful partnerships, ports of all kinds are working together to strengthen themselves and others, benefiting the entire industry in the process.
The Corn Belt Ports initiative is built on a foundation of partnership. The initiative is made up of the port statistical areas of the Northern Grain Belt Ports, the Illinois Waterway Ports and Terminals, the Mid-America Port Commission, and the Mississippi River Ports of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois. Together, the ports serve the core of the largest grain-producing and exporting region in the United States.
The Corn Belt Ports partnership is only three years old, said Robert Sinkler, Corn Belt Ports executive coordinating director, and the Northern Grain Belt Ports just joined the group earlier this year. However, by teaming up, the ports already have worked together to ensure a coordinated, robust regional planning effort that benefits each of the ports as well as their communities, including in the critical pursuit of federal funding, he said. The ports are stronger together than they would be on their own.
While Corn Belt Ports serves as a striking example of close links between ports, partnerships with peers and others are central to the way ports operate today. These partnerships take on many forms and focus on a variety of goals and priorities, such as strengthening sustainability, improving supply chain efficiencies, and securing grant dollars. Partnerships can form with nearby neighboring ports or consist of relationships with ports located far away overseas.
The partnerships yield not just concrete benefits but also something qualitative – and no less meaningful. “Having a port agreement with another port gives us an opportunity to share in a spirit of mutual collaboration and cooperation and mutual respect,” said Marisela Caraballo DiRuggiero, director of trade development for the Port of Los Angeles.
For ports today, partnerships with other ports are not just advisable – they’re essential. And they are part of a larger, ongoing effort to develop and bolster relationships with a wide range of public and private entities for their mutual benefit, both inside and outside the industry.
A Wide Range of Partnerships
Because of the nature of the Corn Belt Ports, coordination within regional planning efforts is especially important, Sinkler said. Consequently, Sinkler said the Corn Belt Ports takes a big tent approach to its annual regional meeting, bringing together stakeholders representing a wide range of interests – from federal programs and economic development groups to environmental nonprofits and river carrier organizations. Sinkler helps representatives of the groups understand the perspectives of each other and collaborate more effectively, and it helps galvanize the relationships among the ports.
“We’re a commodity-based port region, and heavily focused on exports, and it’s just not practical for the ports to compete with each other,” Sinkler said. “So that makes cooperation and trust a lot easier.”
Charles Tillotson, executive director of Plaquemines Port in Louisiana, said effective port partnerships can be essential to effective customer service.
“All ports are not equal, and many have unique market niches,” Tillotson said. “Ports should always keep a customer-first focus and be ready to redirect customers to partnered ports as necessary.”
Gary Nelson, executive director of the Port of Grays Harbor in Washington, said that navigating challenges and missteps is a part of any relationship. For the Port of Grays Harbor, that means working closely with surrounding community partners.
“Striving to create and maintain win/win situations for your port, community, and the other party is essential,” Nelson said. “Not surprisingly, communication is fundamental, as well as managing expectations. As a county-wide rural port district, we only have limited access to fund major infrastructure expansion. We work hard to make sure our customers, elected officials, and business leaders find value in the partnership with the port and the benefits we strive to bring for our community.”
Tillotson said a cooperative endeavor agreement between Jefferson Parish and Plaquemines Port shows how communityport partnerships can provide benefits.
“This collaborative initiative optimizes rail capacity and velocity development of our developing a container port,” Tillotson said. “It simultaneously transforms Jefferson Parish’s aging rail infrastructure by creating a bypass that redirects rail out of the middle of the city of Gretna’s neighborhoods to an industrial corridor. This solution is beneficial for Jefferson Parish, Plaquemines Parish, the port, and the state of Louisiana.”
Sinkler said the Corn Belt Ports’ most effective relationships are with groups representing the commodities that move through their inland ports – the corn growers, soybean associations, and farm bureaus.
“That is just a natural relationship where we have many mutual objectives,” Sinkler said. “What makes the Corn Belt Ports unique is that they all align with existing regional planning agencies and economic development organizations. We have better multi-modal transportation plans and common-shared visions as a result of that.”
Nelson said private and public partnerships are “absolutely critical to the work ports do and imperative for small, rural ports that are often cash poor.”
“Having sound financial partners willing to invest on port-owned infrastructure creates a more resilient partnership because a vested customer is not as likely to pick up and relocate to another port during the inevitable business cyclicality,” Nelson said.
Nelson said much of the Port of Grays Harbor’s success over the past 20 years can be traced to close relationships with federal, state, and local public partners to draw private investment to the community.
“Our strength has been the organic growth of our customers who are typically private partners willing to invest on portowned infrastructure,” Nelson said. “The port’s business model is utilizing our public assets (land, rail and piers) to leverage private investment in facilities (ship loaders, storage or bio refinery) that create jobs and opportunities for our community that wouldn’t be possible without these financial partnerships.”
Partnerships to Increase Activity
Port partnerships have been an important part of the industry for decades, and those partnerships occasionally have an international emphasis.
At PortMiami, the International Sister Seaports Program, which was established in 1998, has helped forge relationships and strengthen trade. The port has executed agreements with approximately 90 international ports through the program. Debra D. Owens, director of government affairs and international relations for PortMiami, said the agreements are non-binding, but they create a framework for partnerships. Benefits include the creation of technical assistance programs and the development of marketing models, Owens said.
“Sharing experience and ideas to strengthen the relationship is the primary goal of the agreement,” she said. “The partnerships fortify commitments to collaborate on initiatives to increase cargo and cruise activity.”
For example, Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava led a business mission to Israel in 2022 and signed a renewed International Sister Seaport Agreement with the Port of Haifa, located in Haifa, Israel, which was first signed in 2017. As a result, Owens said PortMiami and the Port of Haifa strengthened their commercial relationship, resulting in “a significant increase of trade” between the ports. In addition, PortMiami welcomed a new service in 2023 from ZIM, an Israelbased shipping line.
Owens said the sister seaport agreements help ports exchange information and ideas, while focusing on increasing the cargo and cruise business between the ports. PortMiami has signed 21 agreements with ports located in eight of the top 10 trading countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“Due to these partnerships, PortMiami has been able to strategically strengthen not only moves of cargo between the two ports, but also to extend the trade relationships via their respective chambers of commerce, trade offices, and beneficial cargo owners based in Miami,” Owens said. “The program creates a win-win situation.”
PortMiami is currently in discussions with a sister port in Africa to meet with major shipping lines to review trade routes, Owens said.
“Successful collaboration encourages more investments, increased jobs, and more prosperity for our communities,” Owens said.
A Long, Evolving Partnership
The relationship between the Port of Los Angeles and the Port of Nagoya dates back to 1959 when they signed a memorandum of understanding, as did the cities of Los Angeles and Nagoya and their respective chambers of commerce. The partnership stemmed from a citizen international exchange program started by President Dwight Eisenhower, DiRuggiero said.
In the decades since, representatives of the ports have visited each other often, and the agreement has gone through updates to add new dimensions to the partnership. Most recently, the ports signed an updated MOU in June that emphasized sustainability, the digital supply chain, and a green shipping corridor focusing on end-to-end supply chain efficiencies from one country to another.
“We’re working to create a green shipping corridor from the Nagoya Port Authority to the Port of Los Angeles,” DiRuggiero said. “… Ultimately, it’s greening the shipping services between the ports and the equipment that’s being used at both ports. So, it’s decarbonization of the ports in the two countries. That’s very significant.”
DiRuggiero said the relationship between the ports has stood the test of time because “we have a mutual respect for one another.”
“And we follow through on our commitments that we outlined in the MOU,” she said. “So, we continually meet with one another and exchange information, and the port-to port visits are also very important.”
DiRuggiero said the rise of video meetings has helped ports maintain and bolster international relationships, leading to more frequent interactions and collaborations.
“Having virtual meetings has become very acceptable, which is a blessing because you’re able to collaborate and you don’t have to do it in person every time,” DiRuggiero said. “But it also leads you to create those relations. And then when you do meet in person, it’s even more special.”
DiRuggiero said port agreements strengthen the economic and commercial bond between ports.
“All of which enhance trade, supply chain efficiencies, environmental stewardship, infrastructure development, increased security protocols, and an emphasis on new clean technology development and operational improvements,” DiRuggiero said. “That allows for a sharing of components and programs and policies to better both ports.”
Ingredients of Successful Relationships
Tillotson said “safety, security, and capability synergies are essential for port-to-port relationships.”
“Best practices lower learning curves and can increase safety and reduce cost and time in port,” Tillotson said. “I believe sister port relationships where the sharing of import and export vessel traffic create a natural fit; also, port regions with economically viable dual port call synergies create a unique value proposition to shippers. The leveraging of the two-way cargo flow creates a windfall for the ports, ocean carriers, land carriers, and beneficial cargo owners.”
Sinkler said transparency and trust are the keys to effective partnerships, no matter the partners.
“We are very fortunate that our four regional Corn Belt Ports do not compete with each other, and they readily share best business practices and good ideas,” Sinkler said. “This culture of transparency and trust is also a great foundation for our partnerships with industry, other government organizations, and nonprofit organizations.”
Similarly, Nelson said a successful partnership is based on “honesty, integrity, and respect.”
“Early and often, communication is key to developing a relationship with the resiliency to withstand the inevitable challenges that will arise in any business endeavor,” Nelson said.
Still, maintaining that transparency can prove to be challenging.
“Unhealthy and unnecessary competitiveness undermines partnerships,” Sinkler said. “We work hard to ensure everyone is making money and winning.”
One area where collaboration is helpful is through sharing ideas about securing grants at both the state and federal level, Sinkler said.
“The information is freely flowing about that between the four regions,” Sinkler said. “That’s probably the biggest example right now – sharing best business practices to pursue funding opportunities.”
The evidence is clear that developing and managing partnerships with peers and others is integral to every port’s ongoing success.
“No one can do anything alone anymore,” Sinkler said.