A Bus, Some Beer, And High Hopes Depart The Port Of Cleveland On Board The Fortunagracht

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When the Fortunagracht arrived last weekend, dock crews wasted no time unloading its cargo of heavy machinery and components – including parts for wind turbines.

Port officials say it’s the first routinely scheduled shipment of European equipment directly to Cleveland through the Great Lakes in more than a decade.

Among the items lined up on the dock to be loaded for the trip back to Europe…a lone yellow school bus.

“Our owner…he is just fascinated by the yellow school bus, which is unique to America,” laughs Vickie Morenz. She's purchasing manager for ACO Polymer Products, a global manufacturer of trench drainage systems.

Morenz explains that school buses won’t be a regular import item for her company. Her boss just loves the “novelty” of owning an American school bus and will use it to drive guests around the company’s corporate headquarters in Germany.

Port officials and the shipping company were not particularly forthcoming about what goods were on the cargo list…other than the bus and 30 cases of beer.

The Plain Dealer reported that the ship was only half-full.

But early converts say there are good reasons to think the service may take off. Morenz says ACO loves the new Cleveland-Europe Express because…

“Time is money.”

That’s the selling point the Port of Cleveland hopes to capitalize on despite stiff competition from Boston to Miami. East Coast ports are so busy that it can take a while for a company’s goods to ship in and ship out.

Morenze says the time is ripe for an alternative route from Europe to America’s heartland.

“Right now you bring it into Newark, or New York, put it on train," explains Morenz. "(It) goes right past Cleveland into Chicago, gets trans loaded, then comes all the way back to Cleveland. And going from the west to the east side of Chicago, can take as long as going from New York to Chicago.”

Torin Swartout is Vice President of the Spliethoff Group, the owner of the container ship. He says they expect 12 days transit time on the direct trading route between Antwerp and Cleveland, 4 to 5 days sooner than using East Coast ports. He says regional companies stand to save time and money too by not having to move goods hundreds of miles towards the Atlantic by truck or rail.

Plus, he says the Cleveland-Europe Express offers ….a more personal touch.

“The shippers and their forwarders will have a lot more control over the cargo, because it’s a hands on operation, it’s right here," says Swartout. "Their cargo’s not mixed with 25 other steamship line’s cargo going to 50,000 other places. And we can receive cargo much closer to the sailing date, and we can release more cargo closer to the arrival date.”

One of the first challenges for the new shipping line is simply getting word out that the Cleveland-Europe Express exists, says Nate Ward, Director of the International Trade Assistance Center at Cleveland State University.

Ward says with smart marketing and outreach, there could be a nice ripple effect for the city.

“The Spliethoff Group has opened up a freight forwarding office here to help with the bookings. So as the volume increases, you could see the presence of other companies that are taking advantage of it," explains Ward. "The companies would need to dock here, and so they’d have a need a refueling and supplying. And then just the simple transit of getting the goods in and out of area. So I think it could have a nice ripple effect.”

And the Port Authority expects to be turning a modest profit from the new activity by the second year of operation.

For now, the Cleveland-Europe Express will arrive only once a month. But even that is quite a boost and comes at a time when the Port is handling more cargo than it has since 2008.

Marc Krantz, Chairman of the Port Board of Directors, says the new line will only add to that momentum.

“This will be the busiest April that the port has ever seen in 10 years.”

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson said Lake Erie has always been the area’s most vital natural asset.

Now, he predicts the Port will become the Midwest’s “gateway to trade with Europe."

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