July 7, 2016 11:05 AM, EDT

Port of New Orleans Loses Chiquita Business, Again

Paul O'Driscoll/Bloomberg News

After months of rumors, the Chiquita company is moving its cargo business back to Gulfport, Mississippi, nearly two years after its heralded return to New Orleans.

Chiquita Brands International, one of the world’s largest banana and fruit shippers, called New Orleans home for more than seven decades before leaving for Gulfport in the 1970s.

“We are pleased to return our port operations to Gulfport, where our Chiquita ripening and distribution facilities are located,” Chiquita President and CEO Andrew Biles said in a statement released July 6 by the Port of Gulfport. “We believe that Gulfport is optimally situated to service our customers most efficiently with both north and southbound vessel services.”

Port leaders and Louisiana officials have scrambled since early May to persuade the North Carolina-based company to stay. Chiquita’s departure could cost upward of 350 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of projected economic activity that were expected to flow through the New Orleans port over the next decade.

RELATED: Port of New Orleans to Play Second Banana Again? Chiquita Considering Leaving

An economic impact study by LSU in 2014 forecast that Chiquita’s return to New Orleans would lead to about 270 to 350 permanent jobs in the city and an economic impact of $373 million to $485 million over 10 years.

Chiquita’s latest about-face didn’t come without warning. Despite moving its cargo business back to New Orleans in 2014, Chiquita later decided against moving its banana ripening business from Gulfport to New Orleans, which was part of the original deal, blaming congestion at the local port.

Chiquita’s lease in Gulfport is 40 years, according to Mississippi port officials, who expect to begin receiving Chiquita containers by mid-July.

“Chiquita’s return demonstrates the ‘Port of the Future,’ or the Port of Gulfport, is the right fit for companies with international shipping needs,” Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant said in the statement. “It also reinforces the fact Mississippi has a business environment that helps companies maintain their competitive edge in today’s demanding economy.”

To land the project, the Louisiana Economic Development agency offered Chiquita a performance-based deal that provided the company with $11.3 million to help cover its costs. The money was to be paid over a decade and tied to the number of container units moved. The state also put up $2.2 million to invest in a port-owned distribution and ripening facility that would be leased to Chiquita. Though the ripening business stayed in Gulfport, port officials have said about half of that money was spent.

The port offered $2 million for infrastructure upgrades and rehabilitation work at a freight warehouse, but that money has not been used.