Northwest moves forward as trade gateway

The awkward-looking but efficient straddle-carrier deposited a freight container in place beneath the colossal crane, then wheeled away. The crane grasped the box and hoisted it way up and over onto the deck of the Manulani, a Matson Navigation Company vessel out of San Francisco. The process was repeated a number of times in the course of just a few minutes.

''One every 90 seconds,'' James D. Dwyer, deputy executive director of the Port of Seattle, remarked, with one eye on his watch. ''That's not bad.''

The real star of the show, though, as the Manulani was being loaded up Friday , was container No. 6832528. This was the millionth to be handled through the Port of Seattle this year. And 1984 is the first year that Seattle, or any other West Coast port, has ever handled a million containers in a year, port officials say.

Container No. 6832528 was accordingly ''christened'' that morning, with a gaggle of purple-cheeked reporters in attendance, despite the wintry chill.

And what did container 6832528 contain?

Christmas trees, for the Manulani is the official ''Christmas ship'' for Hawaii, due into Honolulu Harbor tomorrow with 185,000 Douglas fir from western Washington to serve as yule trees for the people of the Aloha State.

Not every ship passing through the Port of Seattle is such a nice example of getting local products across the waters, though. Actually, the port, a microcosm of the national trade picture, has a large trade deficit: There are plenty of exports through here, but the dollar value of imports offsets them.

Out from the Port of Seattle pass tons of Northwestern potatoes on their way to become French fries for the McDonald's outlets in Tokyo. Back into the port come, among countless other items, those Japanese robot toys expected to be one of the big hits of this year's holiday season.

It seems ironic that the largest and presumably most sophisticated economy in the world exports raw materials and imports finished goods, not only from Japan but from countries only newly industrialized. But compare the value of a ton of potatoes with that of a ton of robot toys, and you have the trade deficit in a nutshell - or a freight container.

Paradoxically, perhaps, Seattle illustrates that trade services, even if running a deficit, can become virtually a base industry that functions in the local economy like a primary industry. Port of Seattle activities employ 86,000 people just in King County (which includes much, but not all, of metro Seattle), reporters at Friday's celebrations were told. This compares with roughly 70,000 in aerospace, or 40,000 for the lumber and wood products sector, for the state as a whole.

Moreover, the port has shown it can carry on quite independently of the rest of the local economy.

''We had strong positive growth through the recession,'' Mr. Dwyer says, noting that the port was ''not impacted'' by the gyrations at Boeing, another major regional employer.

Projecting that container 6832528 will be followed by 200,000 more freight boxes by the year end, Dwyer forecasts total numbers of containers handled here will prove to be up 28 percent this year over last year's 935,000.

Seattle staked out for itself a position in the container shipping business early on and made the immense capital investment needed for it. The port has set up warehousing, trucking, and other distribution channels used mostly by small, import-oriented firms. ''Our market philosophy has been to develop programs for companies that can't develop them themselves,'' says Dwyer, and this fits into the larger mission of serving as a national, not just a regional, port.

An important factor in today's shipping industry is high interest rates and their effect on inventory costs. In times past, goods traveled by water because that was the cheapest way. Now the costs of having inventory tied up on a ship are enough to make a merchant want to get his goods off the boat at the first stop - likely Seattle if they're coming from the Far East - and have them brought overland for the rest of the trip.

Seattle's national orientation reflects not only new economic realities but also the fact that the Northwest simply doesn't have the population base that the ports of California have. ''We have to market ourselves as a gateway,'' Dwyer says, and not as an end destination.

The Port of Portland, Ore., a few hours to the south, is in a similar situation: With only a small local market in Portland, a high proportion of goods go on elsewhere. But Capt. Peter Norwood, director of the Port of Portland's marine department, distinguishes Portland from Seattle thus: ''We've always been a more export-oriented port, and we're more of a regional part.''

Portland's emphasis has been more on grain, wood products, minerals such as soda ash, and other high-volume, low-value goods, principally from the Northwest.

''That's not to say we don't get into national markets, though,'' Captain Norwood says.

Portland is an important landing point for Japanese cars. Cars from Japan are now being carried on specialized ships - floating parking garages - which, unlike their predecessors, cannot simply be loaded up with grain or logs or some other product for the trip back to Japan. These ships must ''deadhead'' (return empty). A deadheading auto ship can get back to Japan from the West Coast in 12 days, roughly half the time it takes from the East Coast, he notes.

Another development Captain Norwood mentions is a tendency for logs to travel in containers nowadays. US imports are up dramatically, and so shippers are offering bargain rates to build business west to Asia. Captain Norwood projects a certain shakeout among shippers as competition over rates - in both directions - heats up.

Portland posted solid gains in most sectors for tonnages shipped the first nine months of the year over the corresponding period last year, and last year was in turn an improvement over the recessionary trough of 1982.

Because of sluggish housing markets in Europe and Japan, weak lumber prices, and the strong dollar, timber exports are not what either Seattle or Portland might have preferred.

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