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Inlfux Means Money as L.A. Becomes Nation's No. 1 Point of Entry : Wave of Imported Autos Floods Ports

June 05, 1986|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

TERMINAL ISLAND — Five years ago, Crown Auto Body, a small company that primps imported autos before they are dispatched to dealers, moved its headquarters from an abandoned bottling plant in Long Beach to Port of Los Angeles land here.

Although the 20-acre site was more than six times the size of its previous location, the company soon called on port officials for more land. Today, after a series of meetings, the company occupies 106 acres on the island for its operations and those of two spinoff companies.

Now they need even more land.

"The port has more or less told us to slow down," said Mike Chevalier, general manager of Crown and a vice president of the other two companies. "But every time we turn around the distributors are bringing in more and more cars. The volume keeps going up continually."

As the number of imported cars and trucks shipped through the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports has surged--making Los Angeles the No. 1 port of entry in the nation for auto imports, according to recent figures--so has business for Crown and the handful of other companies that prepare the vehicles before they are loaded onto railroad cars or truck trailers to be sent to showrooms across the country.

The increase in imported autos and the companies that process them has changed the port's landscape. Gazing down from atop the Vincent Thomas Bridge, one sees what appear to be endless fields of BMWs, Jaguars, Alfa Romeos, Hyundais and a host of other foreign makes.

Ironically, the imported autos are stored on land adjacent to worn, empty buildings formerly used by the island's once-thriving commercial fishing industry--an industry that has been hard hit by foreign competition. And a nearby landfill that had been previously earmarked for construction of offshore oil rigs--an industry also suffering from overseas competition--is being eyed by auto import processors eager to expand.

Along with the imports and servicing companies have come hundreds of new jobs and additional work for waterfront laborers who perform tasks ranging from polishing and painting the vehicles to fine-tuning them. Crown workers recently were installing everything from floor mats to spare tires to roll bars in Suzuki Samurais, the four-wheel-drive vehicles that the Japanese manufacturer recently introduced in California.

Both ports are earning millions of dollars in new revenue from fees imposed on shippers, distributors and processors.

In addition, the Port of Los Angeles estimates that for every imported vehicle that comes into San Pedro Bay, $200 is pumped into the Southern California economy from items as diverse as the car salesman's commission to the expensive stereo systems some consumers install in the vehicles.

"The ripple effects are so great," said Travis Montgomery, the Port of Long Beach's director of trade development. "You have the longshoremen who take (the cars) off the ships, you have the workers who actually prepare the vehicles, you have the truckers who take them to the dealers. We're talking about significant numbers when you add it all up."

Imported vehicles, of course, have been shipped through the ports for years, but during the past two or three years, their numbers have dramatically increased. Last fall, Ward's Automotive Reports, an auto industry trade journal, reported that 153,885 vehicles passed through the Port of Los Angeles in the first five months of 1985, making it the nation's leading port of entry for imported automobiles. A large part of the volume resulted from General Motors' decision to ship Sprints and Spectrums--Japanese imports made by Suzuki and Isuzu--through the port.

A Ward's spokeswoman said the figures, released last September, have not been updated.

At the Port of Long Beach, where a 130-acre auto terminal facility was developed three years ago to house the operations of Toyota and the PASHA Group, an independent vehicle processing firm, officials say 344,407 vehicles were handled during the fiscal year that ended last June. That translated into $5.8 million in revenue for the port. Revenue this fiscal year from imported vehicle operations is expected to come close to $8 million.

At the Port of Los Angeles, where a lump-sum revenue figure for imported auto operations is not computed, officials say the port expects to earn $3.6 million from its auto tariff alone this fiscal year--a 67.8% increase from last year. Some of the increase is expected because of the port raised the tariff from $12 to $18 per car last July. In addition, officials predict that 480,000 automobiles will pass through the port this fiscal year--a 19% increase from last year.

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