CLEVELAND — On Thursday, the Interlake Steamship Company will christen its first new Great Lakes freighter built on the freshwater Lakes in nearly four decades with the introduction of the Interlake Steamship Company's 639-foot vessel named the Mark W. Barker.
The addition of the Barker speaks to the future of commercial activity on the Great Lakes which has grown here in Cleveland over the last two years. The Port of Cleveland tells News 5 general cargo at the Port is up through July, 65% over last year as they look to capitalize on the ongoing supply chain issues on the coasts.
"We're having a very good year," said Port President and CEO Will Friedman. "Cargo volumes are up, we're handling significantly more containers. We're the only container port on the Great Lakes offering a service to Europe for companies here in our region."
Friedman said they're going to be adding new services including the handling of liquid bulk materials important to some local industries.
"We are taking advantage of some of the problems that we continue to see at our big coastal ports. We have capacity and we're looking to bring in more business," said Friedman.
Capacity being a key factor said Interlake Steamship President and the freighter's namesake Mark Barker.
"At the end of the day we have a marine highway here on the lakes that is underutilized," he said. "It's going to have a huge impact on the region. To think about it when it loads out of Cleveland with salt and it comes back with ore any of those given times is going to be 2,500 trucks, 2.5 trains, so if you think about every time we come into Cleveland we do it quietly."
Barker also added the cargo plays a role as well.
"But we come in and we drop our cargo in a matter of hours and we're gone... at the end of the day this ship will have an immense impact over its lifespan," he said.
It's a private investment in the industry's future to match the public investment that is being for things like the billion-dollar project to rebuild the Soo Lock in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
However, Barker says there's more to do.
"In certain areas of maritime we are seeing the support, dredging funds, the Soo Lock is absolutely critical. I think we need more funding for ice breaking. We are a system that gets frozen in in the winter time and those shoulder seasons are critical to ensure that we can move the cargo to our customers and meet the supply needs of them," Barker said.
Jim Weakley, President of the Lake Carriers Association agrees. The association recently commissioned a study that showed that they lost $2 billion in economic activity in the Great Lakes over three recent winters because of the frozen waterways.
"We are just ice breaker poor," said Weakley. "In 1979 the U.S. Coast Guard had nearly 20 ice breakers between the Canadian and the American Ice Breaker fleet, now we're down to 11, nine ice breakers fewer and keep in mind with the polar vortex winters can be more extreme and come on more quickly."
Nevertheless, he remains hopeful and sees the addition of the new Mark W. Barker to the Great Lakes freighter fleet is the clearest sign.
"The fact that we're building new says there's a long term belief in this industry," said Weakley. "You wouldn't build a ship like this if you didn't believe in the future of the industry."