In Export Economy, Is Great Lakes Shipping the Answer?

The last international ship of the year just left the Great Lakes. The Dutch vessel dropped off Swedish steel in Cleveland and picked up grain in Duluth.


Many say increasing exports would help get the region and the country out of the recession.
Well, the Midwest still makes things. If we’re going to be an export economy, how do we get the goods out of the country?

Could we be doing a lot more international trade directly through the Great Lakes?

LISTEN TO THE STORY: [audio:ShipFINAL_web.mp3]

It is not easy to get steel mill equipment from Ohio to Germany.

Bullnose gear shipping
Butech Bliss readying large equipment for shipment to Germany. Courtesy Butech Bliss

Especially when it’s the largest piece of machinery a company has ever made. Earlier this year, a manufacturer near Youngstown called Butech Bliss beat out foreign firms to supply a German mill with enormous steel cutters. It took a truck with 19 axles.

Super truck in salem
Courtesy Butech Bliss

“Actually, the shear itself ended up weighing about a million and a half pounds,” said Chuck Jackson, Butech Bliss’s Vice President. It was a $15 million order — half the company’s annual revenue. That was the good news. The bad news? Pennsylvania and Maryland wouldn’t let him truck it on their highways to the port in Baltimore. The trucks were simply too big.

He racked his brain for a solution.

Chuck Jackson

“I had heard faintly of people shipping out of Cleveland,” Jackson said. “But I never really thought about it.”

That ended up being his answer. He shipped the machinery out the St Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic to Germany.

695 on ship small
Butech Bliss’s equipment being loaded onto ship in Cleveland. Courtesy Butech Bliss.  

But for now, this is still not that common.

“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” said Brad Hull, a professor at John Carroll University.

He says there are Midwest companies that want to use the lakes and there are shipowners that want to serve them. But the shippers want to make sure the service is dependable and the ship-owners want to be certain there’s demand.

“So, essentially you’ve got both sides that need to meet in the middle,” he said.

For now, much of the shipping is based on luck. There’s no predictable service. This year, a drought in Russia has boosted the grain exports from Duluth, for instance.

Will Friedman is the new head of the Port of Cleveland.

“We’re not in control of our own destiny,” said Will Friedman, the new head of the Port of Cleveland. “Sometimes good things happen but it’s not because we did anything.”

Friedman hopes we’ll soon see small steps to changing that. There’s serious talk of starting a regular, predictable container service for the first time in decades.

For now, most ships like this one in Cleveland just have their cargo secured to the deck.

The last ship of the year in Cleveland. Workers unload steel from its deck. Photo by Dan Bobkoff

Cleveland and Detroit’s ports generate upwards of $2 billion in economic impact a year but that’s well less than Baltimore.


“We just want to be who we are better than we have been previously,” Friedman said.

Cleveland and Detroit’s ports generate upwards of $2 billion in economic impact a year but that’s well less than Baltimore.

John Baker says more activity on the lakes can’t come soon enough. He’s with the International Longshoreman’s Association and has spent decades trying to get more foreign business so his members can get more work.


John Baker

“It’s not enough! It’s never going to be enough until we see it. I keep saying it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, but I don’t see it, and I don’t see anyone pushing as hard as we are,” Baker said.

Baker thinks the ports need to do a better job marketing. They need to tell potential customers that ice is only a problem for two or three months, and that it can be easier and cheaper to get to parts of Europe through the Seaway than coastal ports like New York and Baltimore.

That’s what Butech Bliss learned getting its steel cutters to Germany. Chuck Jackson is thinking of using the port again.

“We worried and worried and worried about being late,” he said. “Everything went our way and we actually ended up getting there two weeks early.”
It’s like an ad for the Port of Cleveland.

2 Replies to “In Export Economy, Is Great Lakes Shipping the Answer?”

  1. More international shipping is one thing. Ships bringing in more pollution and invasive species is quite another. We only can have the first when we’ve absolutely insured that the second isn’t permitted.

  2. Well, officials should come up with better ideas on how to resolve this shipping issues. Export economy works for some places, but there are strict policies and one of the primary goals is to decrease unemployment. If the region can afford to develop better shipping equipment, then perhaps, that would solve the matter.

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