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Erin Kuhn, Executive Director, West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission Erin Kuhn, Executive Director, West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission Courtesy Photo

Q&A: Erin Kuhn Executive Director, West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission

BY Sunday, August 07, 2016 01:43pm

Marketing and rebranding the Port of Muskegon — the only natural deepwater commercial port on West Michigan’s coast — continues to be a priority for public and private stakeholders across the region. The goal: Creating a regional logistics hub offering a variety of transportation options to better move goods. Much of the work is overseen by Muskegon-based West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC), a four-county planning and development agency. Last month, the group hosted Port Day to showcase their efforts to the business community. MiBiz spoke with WMSRDC’s Executive Director Erin Kuhn to discuss the group’s efforts. 

What was the driver behind the Port Day event?

Really, the purpose of the event was to build a strong foundation for future development around the Port of Muskegon and to gain that additional, regional support around the development of not only the Port of Muskegon but a regional logistics hub. 

If you had to look three to five years in the future, what would be the desired outcome for the Port of Muskegon?

I think it would be to secure some customers, get a short-sea shipping ferry service, a commercial ferry service on the water, even if it’s in the form of a demonstration. … A commercial ferry service would either be moving containers or bulk goods back and forth to Milwaukee. Having that cross-lake service and demonstrating the opportunities that are available by creating a logistics hub in Muskegon (would be a goal).

What are the strategies to accomplish those goals?

We’re still working on all of those strategies. We’re working very closely with the public and private sector to secure the boats in the water as well as the customers that need their goods moved. That’s the strategy, to continue that public-private collaboration to make this all happen.

With the closure of Consumers Energy’s B.C. Cobb power plant and the loss of its coal shipments, the port has had to identify new ways to boost the tonnage to continue securing federal dredging funds. How has that process gone?

(It was) almost a crisis situation in looking at losing the coal tonnage that the Cobb plant brought through. The community rallied together to identify opportunities of how to replace that tonnage. It’s kind of morphed from being a problem to an opportunity. 

How so?

When the regional West Michigan Prosperity Alliance identified the Port of Muskegon as their number one regional priority, that really elevated it from a local issue to a regional issue and priority and opportunity to build on this excess capacity … that the port and all four modes of infrastructure around the port have to (create) this regional logistics hub. 

What do you mean by that?

Muskegon has the best multimodal transportation foundation for a regional logistics hub in Michigan outside of Detroit (due to its highways, rail system, airport and waterborne transportation). Really, in all of those modes, there’s excess capacity. 

What will make up the excess capacity at the port to maintain that federal funding?

The existing operators around the Port of Muskegon have already replaced that tonnage in their current capacities and what they’re doing. The increase in road construction around West Michigan, with the moving of the aggregate and what the existing port operators are doing, has really already made up the loss of that tonnage. But what the community wants to do now is diversify and increase the tonnage so that if there is a downturn in the construction industry or any one sector, that isn’t a concern anymore. 

What are the biggest opportunities to increase and diversify the tonnage at the port?

That increase will really come from the non-traditional movement of goods throughout the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes has traditional goods that have been moved for years. That includes aggregate, iron ore, coal. Throughout all of the Great Lakes, those industries have shown a decline since the Great Recession in 2008. We’re looking at those non-traditional markets of manufactured goods and the agribusiness industry with food processing and the farmers we have — even those that produce fertilizers around West Michigan. We’re just looking at those sectors that are very specific to the West Michigan region. That’s what should really be targeted to make up and diversify those goods. 

What outcomes came out of the Port Day event?

We’ve had a lot of positive comments from the event. It was just to gain that collaboration and the momentum to keep all of the efforts moving forward. There wasn’t a specific thing that came out of it, but it was really just an opportunity to show off the transportation and multimodal infrastructure that Muskegon has. It was a great event. We had representatives from all over the Great Lakes — not just Michigan, but Wisconsin, the Port of Chicago. 

What can the port offer to the broader West Michigan region and the state as a whole?

I would say that people should consider taking a look at Muskegon for their logistics needs — not only shipping, but how Muskegon as a logistics hub can fit into their world and how they move things for their own business.

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