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Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, plans remain in place for the Port of Prince Rupert to expand its existing Fairview shipping-container site – seen here on March 8, 2013 – and build a new $2.5-billion terminal.

Robin Rowland/The Canadian Press

In January, weeks before COVID-19 became a crisis in Canada, the mayor of Prince Rupert made plans to launch a marketing campaign in the spring to lure workers to the coastal city.

By mid-March, Lee Brain delayed those plans to promote Prince Rupert, which is on the cusp of an economic boom. “We’ve been waiting to get our ducks in a row to tell the story of what is happening here, collectively, with port-related projects,” Mr. Brain said in a phone interview. “We were ready to launch our campaign in March and just about to make a big splash, but then the pandemic hit.”

Despite the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, plans remain in place for the Port of Prince Rupert to expand its existing Fairview shipping-container site and build a new $2.5-billion terminal. The northern B.C. port, which reports to the federal Transport Minister, is especially keen to add the second terminal to vastly increase container capacity.

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The dream of Prince Rupert becoming a major gateway for Asian trade dates back more than a century.

In 1912, railway executive Charles Hays envisaged the community transforming into a vital port for North American trade with Asia. He promoted Prince Rupert’s location as a competitive advantage that has shorter shipping times to and from Asia when compared with Vancouver or Los Angeles.

“His original vision was that Prince Rupert would be the metropolitan gateway to the Asia Pacific Rim,” Mr. Brain said. “But he went to raise money in England, and on the way back to North America, he died on the Titanic.”

Instead of glossing over Prince Rupert’s hard-luck history, civic leaders have tied the future to the past. An economic blueprint called “Hays 2.0″ is designed to help fulfill what Mr. Hays dreamed about long ago: a world-class port.

Mr. Brain said that while it’s unclear when the COVID-19 crisis might subside, Prince Rupert will launch the marketing campaign when the time is appropriate, whether it’s late 2020 or early 2021. The goal is to entice workers to move to the port city and also spur interest from investors.

“There obviously are going to be some delays due to the pandemic and our focus now right is to get through this crisis, but ultimately, I think we have a very good economic outlook here,” said the 34-year-old Mr. Brain, who was elected mayor in 2014.

Shaun Stevenson, the port’s chief executive officer, said the expansion of the Fairview container terminal will be necessary to help meet the anticipated growth in shipping traffic over the next decade.

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The shipping industry deploys large vessels to carry containers, which are reusable steel boxes measured as 20-foot equivalent units or TEUs. Cargo is shipped in such containers, including imported consumer goods from Asia and exports of Canadian raw materials such as grain.

Annual capacity at Fairview is currently 1.35 million TEUs and is forecast to rise to 1.8 million TEUs, after the expansion project is completed in 2023.

The Port of Prince Rupert has selected DP World PLC as the operator for the second container terminal. While the COVID-19 pandemic led to manufacturing disruptions and reduced consumer demand, the port and DP World are betting that transpacific supply chains will recover.

Construction of the $2.5-billion South Kaien Island Terminal would start in 2023, subject to a feasibility assessment and regulatory approval. Scheduled for completion in 2028, the South Kaien site would have container capacity for handling 2.5 million TEUs a year.

“At times of crisis, supply chains are looked at as a means of optimizing and preserving value in trade,” Mr. Stevenson said in an interview. Dubai-based DP World, which has run the Fairview container site since 2015, is the best choice to operate the second terminal, he added.

The Fairview terminal opened in September, 2007, and experienced a rough first several years, rocked by the 2008-09 recession. In recent years, however, the port has enjoyed a steady increase in the number of containers that are transported by Canadian National Railway Co. to the U.S. Midwest. Last year, about 70 per cent of the containerized goods from Asia went to the United States while the rest were delivered within Canada.

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“We’re benefiting from being a diversified port complex, and development of container capacity takes a long-term view of the global supply chain,” Mr. Stevenson said.

Prince Rupert has suffered through its share of tough times, including the decline of the forestry sector and fishing industry.

In 2017, Pacific NorthWest LNG cancelled its plans to build an $11.4-billion terminal that would have exported liquefied natural gas from Lelu Island in the Port of Prince Rupert.

Still, the local economy has been resilient during the past three years. A joint venture led by AltaGas Ltd. opened a propane export terminal on Ridley Island in the port last year, and Pembina Pipeline Corp. is slated to open its propane export facility by this fall on Watson Island on land leased from the City of Prince Rupert.

The Lax Kw’alaams Band and Metlakatla First Nation have backed improvements to the coal-export terminal on Ridley Island.

Civic officials say that if port-related activity thrives, Prince Rupert’s population could increase to 20,000 in a decade, up more than 50 per cent from today’s 13,000 residents. A civic initiative called Redesign Rupert is optimistic about downtown revitalization.

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