Where Do We Go From Here: The Port of Corpus Christi and Its Future Looks Bright

Thu, November 29, 2018

It’s not a stretch that billions of dollars worth of economic activity could be added to the Coastal Bend area over the next 20 years.

Cotton was king. When the Port of Corpus Christi opened for business back in 1926, farmers in Nueces and the surrounding counties were some of the largest producers in the state.

And even today, it remains one of the region’s main agricultural products.

“King Ranch was here and they grew a lot of cotton,” said John LaRue, executive director of the Port of Corpus Christi. “South Texas still grows a lot of cotton and Texas grows more cotton than any other state in the nation.”

But the discovery of oil here in the early 1930’s dramatically changed the nature of the port.

Oil became the king and we became an import port for crude oil to serve what at the time originally were six refineries. There are now three refineries and that lasted until 2010, really.

The port didn’t build a single new dock for nearly 30 years. But in the late 1980’s, port officials began looking at ways to diversify.

And the first priority was room to grow.

“We went out and bought additional land,” LaRue said. “We bought the La Quinta tract and ended up swapping some land to get Harbor Island.”

New infrastructure was also needed.

The Joe Fulton Trade Corridor was built to provide better highway access. $55 million was spent to build the Nueces River Railyard giving us the best rail facilities of any port on the Gulf of Mexico.

And a billion dollar project is underway to build a new harbor bridge.

The only missing piece has been a wider and deeper ship channel to handle today’s larger ships which can haul more than twice the capacity of the tankers that can currently dock in the port.

Efforts to get the necessary permits and funding date to 1990. Congress authorized the project twice, but it never made it to the president’s budget, key to getting funding.

And nothing happened until a new administration took office.

“When President Trump was elected, he had three primary areas he wanted to concentrate on,” said Charles Zahn, chairman of the Corpus Christi Port Commission. “Those were energy independence, infrastructure and balance of trade. I will tell you that we check all three of those boxes with this particular project.”

So, it was a matter of getting the president’s ear. And Zahn says thanks to U.S. Rep. Michael Cloud, that opportunity presented itself recently.

“And he said give me some facts I’m gonna get to ride on Air Force One from Houston to Washington D.C. and I’m gonna have the man’s ear,” Zahn said.

Judging from a news conference the next day, the congressman was persuasive.

“So in Texas, they can’t get the big ships in because they need to dredge a couple of feet,” Trump said. “Standard stuff, but they can’t get the permits. It’s not from us … they’ve been trying for years.

“You may have heard about it – or maybe not. Whatever you can do for the great state of Texas, this way they can bring the giant ships right in. Fill them up and they go out and it’ll be a tremendous difference and we’ll sell a lot more oil.”

The president has kept his word, committing $26 million to get the channel project started. Zahn expects to see the dredging start by the end of this year.

So all these decisions to diversify the port. To acquire room to grow. and the investments in new infrastructure combined with the oil and gas discoveries in the Eagle Ford Shale and west Texas. And the growing global demand for energy has positioned the port to take advantage of tremendous new opportunities.

“What’s driving a lot of the growth here is of course our energy renaissance,” said Sean Strawbridge, chief executive officer of the Port of Corpus Christi. “But it’s also the fact that we’ve got a great workforce here, both professional and tradecraft, we’ve still got abundant available land for development, we’ve got a deep draft channel, we’ve got some great educational institutions that help develop future talent, so all of that combined is a recipe for success.

“And here at the port of Corpus Christi, we’re committed to putting all those ingredients together, and insuring that we’ve got economic stability and growth for the next five years…the next 10 years… and hopefully the next 20 years.”