‘Everything on the table’ for Port Saint John expansion: CEO

As Port Saint John eyes the completion of its ambitious port expansion and modernization, its CEO says all options are on the table for future developments, including the potential for a nearby land-based logistics hub.

Image: Port Saint John

While explosive growth of shipping container volume has brought more “direct” jobs for local longshoremen, there’s the potential for “downstream” jobs at a supply chain hub, with manufacturing, warehousing and distribution jobs creating more local employment opportunities, port CEO Craig Bell Estabrooks said.

He’s quick to clarify Port Saint John isn’t currently actively pursuing land-based expansion or investment outside the port itself. The port is expected to finish its $205-million west side modernization project this year.

The port’s modernization efforts mean Port Saint John will have the capacity to handle 800,000 twenty-foot equivalent units per year by the end of 2024, rivalling the capacity of Halifax’s port, with the added bonus of having three class-one rail lines nearby.

But “we need to be thinking of what’s next,” Bell Estabrooks said, and the port sees opportunities for in-land developments in the wake of its explosive container growth.

“Looking at warehousing, manufacturing, that’s where you can take really good direct jobs and create more employment with a growing port,” he said.

Approximately 150,000 TEUs came through the port in 2022, nearly double the port’s activity in 2021 and shattering previous volume records set decades ago.

Andrew Oland, CEO of Moosehead Breweries, said the impressive increase in container volume is “just the first part” of the port’s importance to Saint John and Atlantic Canada.

“What really excites me is the land side,” he said at a recent event hosted by the Saint John Region Chamber of Commerce.

Oland said there’s “immense” opportunity in building a logistics centre in Saint John to serve all of eastern North America.

“In my opinion, the top economic growth opportunity in all of Atlantic Canada is right here in Saint John, with Port Saint John,” he said, garnering enthusiastic applause from the business community.

Currently, he said, beer manufactured at the west side Moosehead brewery is trucked to Moncton, where it travels by rail to Ontario and beyond.

Bell Estabrooks said the port will be closely monitoring Bill C33, which was tabled in Parliament at the end of 2022 and addresses changes of Transport Canada’s governance of the country’s ports.

It includes proposals for ports to look at in-land investments, “which we don’t have the ability to do today,” he said, “but if the legislation passes, that’s something we can add to the master planning process.”

Bell Estabrooks said Port Saint John has been involved in discussions with the city’s plans for its three industrial parks, including the Spruce Lake Industrial Park in Lorneville.

Last year, the City of Saint John identified expanding and investing into its industrial parks as a catalytic project, with the goal of attracting green energy and transportation and logistics businesses, among other sectors.

The city earmarked $50,000 for the Spruce Lake Industrial Park in Lorneville, along with the Grandview Industrial Park and McAllister Park, for “vegetation management and marketing enhancements.”

Bell Estabrooks said it’s hard to predict 2023 volumes due to potential economic headwinds, but, so far, container activity has been “very similar” to 2022.

He said the port is “actively monitoring” the state of the economy, but some economic indicators point to a “soft landing” as opposed to a severe economic contraction.

“But you can’t be at 100 per cent capacity and then start planning for the future,” Bell Estabrooks said. “We’re going to begin that process very soon.”