Port of Monroe steers to the future

Michigan’s “Biggest Little Port” continues to advance
June 29, 2021
Wind tower components lay on the dock near the Happy River at the Port of Monroe. Photo by Paul LaMarre III

The Port of Monroe was recently awarded the Robert J. Lewis Pacesetter Award by the Great Lakes Seaway Development Corporation, the agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation responsible for overseeing and managing the U.S. portion of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway system. The Port of Monroe continues to grow and adapt, and has earned the Pacesetter award 6 out of the last 8 years. The most recent award marks their third consecutive. The award is given to Ports across the American part of the Seaway system who create new cargo opportunities, as well as increase cargo volume and vessel calls. 

Calusa Coast and barge Delaware arrive at Port of Monroe, with Happy River at the dock, 2020. Photo by Sam Hankinson

Port Director Paul LaMarre III states that the Port of Monroe is more than just the Pacesetter Award. “It is the rebirth of the Port since 2012 and establishing our identity as an active and major seaport on the Great Lakes”. LaMarre said that the Port is refocusing on maritime and transportation commerce to better the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway system, as well as the community of Monroe, providing revenue and jobs. He has nicknamed Monroe the “Biggest little port”, and wants the Port of Monroe to serve as an example of putting a port back on the map, to carry on the legacy of the original ideals of shipping on the Great Lakes by industry magnates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “If I could describe the port in one word, it would be resilient”, stated LaMarre.

“Since its inception in 1932, the port was always identified with lots of potential”, LaMarre noted. There is a shelf full of port development and feasibility studies in alignment with this potential, but the port never reached the level of potential until recently. By identifying cargo opportunities locally, the port has gone from a relatively inactive seaport to a leader in the community and in the Great Lakes Seaway system.

Harvest Spirit docked at Port of Monroe, 2020. Photo by Paul LaMarre III

“If you create the relationship, the cargo always comes later” remarked LaMarre. And that’s what the Port of Monroe has done. They have built relationships with carriers, cargo origins, and other ports across the system. They have changed the mentality of turning to a feasibility study before making a move to just making the move. The port shown that they can do the work feasibly, economically, and have proved themselves. Monroe also has the honor of being home to the world’s oldest active tugboat, the Georgia of 1897, which is owned and operated by the Great Lakes Towing Company. “Having the tug Georgia there is one of the most rewarding parts of the job”, LaMarre said.

Paul LaMarre III took over at the Port of Monroe in 2012. He previously conceptualized the idea of the National Museum of the Great Lakes in Toledo, and oversaw the transformation and restoration of the museum ship Willis B. Boyer back to her original glory as the Col. James M. Schoonmaker. He continues to serve at the museum as the Vice Chairman at the museum, and has oversight of both museum ships. This, he does in his spare time. “My goal is to preserve the Great Lakes, past, present, and future” said LaMarre. LaMarre also previously served at the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority. At the Port, he is assisted by Sam Hankinson, a recent Central Michigan grad and Port Development Coordinator, among others. The people come first at Port of Monroe.

Happy River docks at Port of Monroe with a shipment of wind tower components, 2020. Photo by Sam Hankinson

The Port of Monroe happens to be home of one of 4 wind tower manufacturers in the United States, Ventower Industries. In 2019, the Port served as the manufacturing and staging location for Ventower, and assisted in the export of wind tower components to Peru in 2019. In 2020, demand from regional wind projects helped the port expand into the importation of wind tower components as well. Partnered with General Electric Wind and Spliethoff’s BigLift, the ocean-going ship Happy River was placed on a regular shuttle service, delivering wind towers from Becancour, QC, to Monroe to supplement the regional projects. As a result, Monroe has become the regional distribution hub for GE wind, expanding the Port’s multimodal transportation sector.

LaMarre has credited the Port’s ability to be nimble and able to adapt at a moment’s notice some of the key reasons to their success. Last year’s focus was on wind at the port, and this year, the focus turns to steel coils, which will be imported from Nanticoke, ON. The Port is also working to make it possible for Michigan agricultural products to be exported from more Michigan ports. “I don’t see us in competition with any other Great Lakes port”, added LaMarre. “Though we are a smaller port, we are often able to have a greater impact on those that we serve”. Even with their growth recently, Port of Monroe has lost more cargo than they have handled since 2012. This is primarily due to ongoing issues with U.S. Customs & Border Patrol, who have prevented and refused the Port from handling certain international cargoes requiring detailed inspection and screening.

Tanker Iver Bright and tug Wisconsin (now Georgia). Photo by Paul LaMarre III

Of all of the ports in the State of Michigan, Port of Monroe is one of two public ports, the other being the Detroit-Wayne County Port Authority. Interestingly, the State of Michigan has more ports than any other state on the Great Lakes-Seaway system, but does not have any single entity representing the ports of Michigan. Paul LaMarre is working with the state government to help develop a much more thorough awareness to what the ports contribute to the state economy, as well as help generate financial support for the ports. Of the state’s multi-million-dollar annual transportation budget, currently $0 goes towards marine transportation.

After all of this, what is next for the Port of Monroe? The Port plans to continue to aim high and improve. They strive to build a more harmonious relationship with US Customs and Border Patrol. Port of Monroe is currently on track to be a full service and highly advanced container port by the spring of 2023, with the capability of screening containers and handle more international cargo. Above all, they will continue to be resilient and relentless.

Tug Ohio heads out to assist Happy River, arriving at Port of Monroe with a load of wind turbines, 2020. Photo by Paul LaMarre III

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