Michigan Emerging As The Next Great Shipping Hub In North America

Posted on March 21, 2013

To some, the idea of Michigan emerging as the next big North American transportation and logistics hub sounds ridiculous.

“There hasn”t been any marketing of it,” said Jim Smiertka, senior vice president and general counsel of the East Lansing, Mich.-based Prima Civitas Foundation. “If you look at it, it”s a peninsula. A lot of people say, ‘How can Michigan be a logistics hub?’”

The Potential

But the doubters are missing a few important pieces of information, Smiertka said. First, the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron and Ambassador Bridge in Detroit are the two busiest US-Canadian border crossings. Through these, Michigan has access to the Halifax Deep Water Port and three other deep water ports along the St. Clair River at the Canadian border crossing. Additionally, the Canadian National Railway flows right into Port Huron, Michigan.

Smiertka said the widening of the Panama Canal is also creating a ripe opportunity for these ports; others around the country are not deep enough to accommodate docking super freighters.

“Halifax is a natural deep water port,” he said. “Then you have that direct connection with the CN and the interstate system right into the US and through into Mexico.”

The Movements

Smiertka said that more than 90 percent of the cargo that currently comes through Michigan continues right on through to Chicago without stopping. Prima Civitas Foundation has been working to change that, developing partnerships with municipalities, chambers of commerce and others.

One of these groups is The Great Lakes International Trade and Transport Hub, which aims to take advantage of the freight traffic to and from the Port of Halifax through Detroit and Port Huron — with Canadian partners in tow. The international partners met for a summit in 2011 to brainstorm ideas for improving trade between Canada and the Midwest. A seven-year action plan delivered to the governor included increasing collaborations between businesses and marketing the region.

A simultaneous economic development effort has been the creation of five aerotropolis zones, or Next Michigan Development Corporations. These districts are areas surrounding airports and collaborating municipalities now offer companies incentives to locate there. The largest of these cooperative agreements resulted in the I-69 International Trade Corridor.

The Benefits

The prospect of tens of thousands of new jobs and a new business sector is often the focus of the buzz, but Smiertka said the benefits of Michigan as the next major transportation and logistics hub go far beyond the state itself.

“It’s a value proposition for businesses,” he said. “If you go through Chicago, your freight will be delayed five days. In Michigan, it would take one day.”

The state also has one resource found nowhere else in the nation: the top talent. Michigan State’s undergraduate Supply Chain Management program ranks number one in the nation, according to US News & World Report, even outranking MIT. As a major partner in Great Lakes International Trade and Transport Hub, MSU’s influence is sure to put the movement on the right track, as well as fuel the burgeoning sector with talent.

Though Michigan’s evolution into a transportation and logistics hub may not happen overnight, it’s not far-off. The seven-year action plan is awaiting approval now, and according to Smiertka, all entities are ready to move forward.

“We’re all very hopeful,” he said. “There’s an enthusiasm around this I’ve never seen in my years of government work.”

With any luck, within a decade, that enthusiasm will translate into a change in the the flow of cargo in and out of North America, and give Michigan a new place in the world transportation and logistics network.

Natalie Burg, Forbes.