All in all, the Virginia Port Authority would be hard-pressed to say that 1978 was a good year for the Port of Hampton Roads. Two lengthy strikes decimated the port's bulk tonnage volume, costing an estimated loss of 11 million tons of coal and 1.2 million tons of grain.
The VPA figured the loss had a whopping $108 million economic impact. The strkers were the United Mine Workers and employes of Norfolk and Western Railway. The latter is the largest carrier of coal and grain to the port.
Bulk commodities represent 47 million of the 50 million tons of cargo that normally pass through this port annually, and they account for all the business at the overwhelming majority of marine terminals.
But the VPA likes to point out that it is in general, or refined, cargo that the real money lies By this standard, 1978 was another good year for the port.
For the first 10 months of the year -- the latest figures available -- the port handled 2.65 million tons of general cargo, up from 2.4 million tons for the same period in 1977. For the year, the port expects to notch about a 5 percent tonnage gain.
The VPA owns the port's five general cargo marine terminals and promotes all of Hampton Roads. Because general cargo is so labor-intensive, it generates about $45 a ton in revenue, while bulk cargo generaltes less than $9 a ton, the VPA said.
Hampton Roads generally isn't in the limelight as much as the ports in New York and Baltimore because both are bigger in terms of general cargo tonnage handled, and they are located in larger metropolitan areas. But because the port handles so much in bulk commodities, the VPA says it ranks first in the United States in volume of export cargo, and second only to New Yourk on the East coast in total tonnage handled.
Predictably, the port's economic impact in Virginia is considerable. In 1977, the latest year for which figures are available, it generalted $509 million in total revenue, which refers to the economic impact from every component involved in the processing and handling of port cargo. Port activities account for almost 113,000 jobs, the VPA said.
The past year wasn't entirely bright for the port's general cargo business because of the loss of its large Datsun import account -- valued at $3 million -- to the Baltimore port. But the port's growing Mideastern business more than offset this, and port officials think its growth rate will be faster in coming years. After that, Hampton Roads expects to collect its share of a projected boom in exports in the 1980s to Africa and South America.
Starting in 1979, general cargo tonnage should grow at a 7 percent annual clip, up from a rate of 5 percent or so registered in recent years, said Bobby Bray, VPA executive director.
Most of the growth will be in "break bulk," as opposed to containerized, cargo -- reflecting the increased competitiveness among southeastern ports for container ships and the limited number of container facilities in the Mideast, Africa and South America.
"No other port in the Country can match our railway and highway connections," Bray boasted, ticking off the names of the five railways that link Hampton Roads to the eastern half of the country. "I don't know that we'll become the leading port serving Africa and South America, but we will continue to get our share of the market," he said. "We're in a great position to serve these continents."
Hampton Roads is known primarily as a "flow-through" port -- most of the cargo that passes through neither originates in, nor is destined for, Tidewater.But some port officials think the relocation of a growing number of light industries here in recent years may increase Tidewater's significance as a point of desination, further fueling port activity.
In addition, Bray intends to launch a new marketing campaign this year to sell Virginia firms on the advantages of international trade. "More than 1,000 companies in Virginia are now involved in foreign commerce, but thtre's potential for a lot more, and we want to try to tap some of it," he said.
If a lot more cargo does start rolling through the port, the port authority will be ready for it. Construction projects totaling $18 million are under way at three VPA's marine terminals, with the lengthiest scheduled for completion by 1980.
The work includes completion of a third container berth at Norfolk International Terminals, the largest VPA-owned facility, and a new berth for Portsmouth Marine Terminal. In addition, a second heavy crane will be installed at Newport News Terminal, and 19 acres of new cargo space are being developed.
Hampton Roads lost its role as the point of entry for 60,000 Dasuns in January 1978, but port officials still talk about it as if it just happened. The loss was not especially significant in terms of overall general cargo tonnage, but it was nonetheless severe in economic impact because cars are comparatively worth their weight in gold.
Port officials said unloading an import requires an unusually large degree of labor and thus generates almost $76 a ton in revenue, by far the most lucrative cargo. The port has picked up some of the loss because of increases in other import makes, particularly Ford Fiestas, but officials expect to end 1978 with a net loss of 40,000 imports compared to 1977.
John Hunter, the VPA's research director, said the port lost the account to Baltimore because 60 percent of the Datsuns went to dealerships in the Baltimore-Washington area. The rest were headed to Chicago for Midwest distribution, and it's $9 cheaper to ship a car there from Baltimore, Hunter added.
In any case, prospects for general cargo growth brightened considerably last May when port officials got the Chessie System to relinquish its operating lease at Newport News Marine Terminal. They replaced the railway with a subsidiary of the Lavino Shipping Co., a Philadelphia shipping agent and stevedoring firm. The VPA had long been dissatisfied with the performance of Chessie, which also services the Baltimore port.
Just after it took over operation of the terminal, Peninsula Terminals Inc., the subsidiary, signed a multi-year contract estimated to be worth $200 million with a consolidator of Mideastern cargo. Largely as a result, the terminal is handling 30,000 tons of cargo a month, up from 15,000 tons when Peninsula took over, port officials said.
Hunter said other Hampton Roads general cargo terminals have had similar success in finding new sources of business, although growth hasn't been as dramatic.
Five years ago, the port did not handle crude rubber. But the VPA began lobbying the Crude Rubber Imports Association, which had been importing most of its rubber through New York, and convinced it to ship through Hampton Roads. In 1977, the port handled 330,000 tons of crude rubber.
Now the port is working on increasing its cocoa bean imports. It started getting some of this business away from the Philadelphia port two years ago, and has worked its way up to 50,000 tons a year, Hunter said.
"We're always looking for commodities that we can be competitive in," Hunter said. "You have to be aggressive in this business."