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Banana Deal to Bear Fruit in Revenue, More Jobs

Business: Port of Hueneme officials rejoice over contract for additional 8 million cartons a year. Recent expansion is credited.


PORT HUENEME — Jubilant Port of Hueneme officials announced a new contract Thursday that could increase port revenues by up to 20% while adding scores of new jobs.

"It's major," Deputy Executive Director Judy Cofer said of the deal to bring in an additional 8 million cartons of bananas a year, beginning Jan. 1.

That consolidates the port's position as one of the largest banana importers in the country, officials said, and increases the port's total yearly tonnage from about 805,000 to about 965,000.

But even better than the increase in tonnage, said port spokesman Kam Quarles, "is how much work this will bring. The spinoff jobs may be even more significant than the 50 new [dockworker] jobs the contract will create." New jobs would also be created in trucking and distribution.

The new Pacific Rim shipping service agreement was between Cool Carriers, which operates the world's largest fleet of refrigerated vessels, and the Ecuador-based Noboa Group.

The Noboa Group, Ecuador's largest banana exporter, will use the Port of Hueneme as its U.S. hub. The company started coming to the port on a permanent basis in June after several of its ships were diverted from Los Angeles as a result of a strike by port pilots, Quarles said.

Currently, the Port of Hueneme handles 9 million to 10 million cartons of South American bananas each year. Those volumes will rise to 17 million to 18 million cartons per year.

"This agreement means we have been entrusted with one of the largest banana contracts ever," said Gerald Fountain, U.S. president of Cool Carriers. "By this, we will maintain our strong position in the Pacific."

The Noboa-Cool Carriers operation will employ a dozen large refrigerated vessels on a route that will stretch from South America to California to Japan. The ships will deliver bananas to the Port of Hueneme. And they will transport California lemons, oranges and grapefruit, some of which will be from Ventura County, to Japan.

The agreement was possible in part because of the port's recent expansion onto 33 acres of former Navy property, said Michael Plisky, vice president of the harbor commission's board.

"We've said all along that major business opportunities are out there if the port can acquire enough land to serve them," he said. "We've acquired the [Navy] property and are putting it to use."

The land acquisition was finalized in March and increased the port's land area by more than 30%. The Oxnard Harbor District, which operates the port, will spend up to $25 million on new road and rail facilities and a 92,000-square-foot warehouse.

The Port of Hueneme is "very small, compared to L.A. or Long Beach. But we're a niche port," Cofer said. "We go after the cargo others may not want to handle. They want the container business in Los Angeles, and we go after perishable goods and ro-ro cargo [roll on, roll off]."

The Noboa Group's products are marketed by Pacific Fruit in the United States under the Bonita label. All fruit imported to and exported from the United States under the new agreement will use the Port of Hueneme.

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