November 17, 2016 10:05 AM, EST

Port of New Orleans Chief Highlights Cargo Gains in Final Address

TT File Photo

It may have been his 16th and final State of the Port address, but Gary LaGrange didn't sound ready to step back.

"I'm not sure I agree with swan song," said LaGrange, the local port's president and CEO. "That's almost like a prelude to a funeral. I don't know about you, but I'm not ready to sing yet."

In a half-hour speech, LaGrange touted consecutive years of record gains in container cargo traffic and cruise ship passengers, and warned the room full of local maritime leaders and business officials not to wait on the sideline.

RELATED: Port of New Orleans CEO Gary LaGrange to retire next year

"This is a trailer, if you will. You can decide if you want to invest in the movie later. It's called the Port of New Orleans," he said Nov. 16 at the New Orleans Downtown Marriott at the Convention Center. "You decide if you want to invest in it later, but don't be too late because somebody is likely to beat you to the punch."

The New Orleans port handled a record amount of container cargo in the fiscal year ending in September, more than a half-million 20-foot equivalent units — a measure of cargo capacity for containerized shipping — LaGrange said Nov. 16 as he rolled through a year's worth of highlights.

That rise happened despite Chiquita Brands International's decision this year to move its cargo business back to Gulfport, Mississippi. "The numbers don't lie, ladies and gentlemen," he said.

Cargo gains marked the second year in a row the port has set a high. For the 12-month period ending in September, the port recorded 532,427 TEUs, up from 528,329 a year ago, LaGrange said.

The annual address was hosted Nov. 16 by the International Freight Forwarders & Customs Brokers Association of New Orleans.

LaGrange, who has headed the port since 2001, is slated to retire in April. He is expected to be succeeded by Chief Operating Officer Brandy Christian.

In the years ahead, LaGrange anticipates that the port's container business will continue expanding — particularly chemical exports as tens of billions of dollars worth of planned large-scale industrial projects are built in Louisiana.

Chemical exports were up nearly 16% through the first five months of 2016, LaGrange said, making it the port's highest-performing commodity.

To prepare for that increased demand, the port invested nearly $40 million last year to improve operations and boost capacity at its Napoleon Avenue container terminal. In the coming years, the port plans to spend tens of millions of dollars to bolster its container capacity to nearly 1 million TEUs by adding 28 acres of heavy paving at the terminal’s Milan Upland marshaling yard.

Over the first five months of this year, poultry exports climbed 41% as destination countries eased restrictions on U.S.-produced poultry in 2016. On the imports side, the port saw its coffee and nonferrous metals traded on the London Metals Exchange — namely aluminum and lead — increase more than 12%.

Meanwhile, as business leaders throughout Louisiana's key industries continue to assess how they'll fare under President-elect Donald Trump's policies, LaGrange said he's expecting the port will benefit.

"This new administration, in all likelihood, will be a very, very, very pro-business administration," he said.

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