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Fate of 75-year-old Benton Harbor shipping business in jeopardy

September 20, 2011|By John Paul (jpaul@wsbt.com), Click here to follow John on Twitter | By John Paul (jpaul@wsbt.com), Click here to follow John on Twitter

BENTON HARBOR — Michigan's Great Lakes are about more than tourism. They're also big business. More than 150 million tons of cargo gets shipped there each year. But for a Benton Harbor business, shipments are down this year. 

Ships are having trouble getting into the business’s harbor because of all the sediment underwater, and the Army Corps of Engineers says it's unlikely the harbor will ever bounce back.

The inner harbor is not on the 2012 priority list for dredging because of the economy. The government calls it a low-use harbor, so they are not going to help. 

It looks like the beginning of the end, and the owner is doing his best to change that.

When it came to shipping bulk materials, Jack Kinney’s father put Benton Harbor on the map when he opened Central Dock 75 years ago. When it opened, it was one of only 30 coal dealers nationwide. 

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Over the years, the business changed with the times – from asphalt to stone to salt.

"It's been good over all the years," said Jack Kinney.

But Jack and his son John wonder if the company will be around for 75 more.

"It's getting from slow to bad to critical," said John.

Last year, Central Dock received 91,000 tons of material. That’s less than half than the 241,000 tons received in 2009.

The hard knocks are evident: Central Dock’s first shipment of the year arrived Saturday. It was a 10,000-ton salt shipment, but it doesn't hide the fact that the dock still has a lot of open space. And that's not the only problem.

"To keep the harbor open and viable, you have to dredge it periodically," said John.

Tom O'Bryan, an engineer with the Army Corps of Engineers, confirmed the outer harbor was dredged last year.

John said it did nothing to help boats in the inner harbor.

"Ships were stuck," said John. "You have to do both to make the harbor function."

But that won’t happen. The Federal government said the Central Dock, Dock 63 and the LaFarge Corp docks form a low-use commercial harbor.

Based on the number of inner harbor shipments, the inner harbor hasn't reached the million-ton minimum to qualify for aid.

Year   Product in Ton

2007  633,543

2008  410,192

2009  428,931

The last time the harbor reached a million tons was 2001. So John and Jack are basically on their own.

"We're still trying to come to grips with what's happened down here," John said. "It's not good."

County leaders and engineers from the Army Corps said they it will be difficult to reach that 1-million ton minimum to qualify for aid.

"It's really a Catch 22," said O'Bryan. "The Harbor had some low-use years."

How will it ever get to a million tons a year?  O'Bryan said "it probably won't ever again."

John and Jack are considering their options. If the economy or the number of shipments don’t increase, they’re in trouble.

And their only option: Close the business, sell the land or find the money for dredging on their own.

 

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