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First Asia cargo ship will arrive on July 7

Mitsui OSK Lines' Vision will complete the long quest for a direct connection from Jacksonville to Asia.

By TIMOTHY J. GIBBONS, The Times-Union

The first regularly scheduled ships to carry cargo from Asia to the First Coast will begin arriving in Jacksonville on July 7, about six months earlier than anticipated.

Mitsui OSK Lines Ltd. will be bringing one ship a week into Jacksonville, using facilities leased from APM Terminals at Blount Island. Each ship will off-load somewhere between 500 and 1,200 containers each time it stops.

Next month's arrival will mark the culmination of a yearslong quest to set up a direct connection between Jacksonville and Asia. The MOL Vision will pull into port almost three years to the day since the Jacksonville Port Authority signed a deal with the Japanese steamship line.

The ships on the new route will be shared by Mitsui, its partners in The New World Alliance and shipping line CMA-CGM.

With $98.6 billion worth of goods having been imported from China to the United States so far this year, there's much money to be made in the business: The new trade lane is expected to reshape the face of Jacksonville, making it a major player in the East Coast maritime community. Once the terminal being built for MOL at Dames Point is up and running, it will employ about 1,800 people, with thousands more driving trucks, connecting shippers and customers, along with a host of other jobs.

The early arrival will start that ball rolling, port officials said, bringing in $250,000 to $500,000 to the Jacksonville Port Authority, which leases space to terminal operators, over the next six months.

"The customers have been bugging us to find out when it's going to happen," said Roy Schleicher, senior director of marketing and trade development for the Jacksonville Port Authority. "There were rumors running that it was going to be coming early. People are already trying to book cargo."

The unionized workforce at the port has been preparing for the increase in business since the deal with Mitsui was announced. They're well equipped to handle one more ship a week, said Vince Cameron, president of International Longshoremen's Association Local 1408, one of the two longshoremen's unions at the port.

"These early ships are just a drop in the bucket to the long-term presence MOL is going to have here when it's operating full bore," Cameron said. "One or two extra ships a week is a blip on the screen."

The announcement of the earlier arrival comes as a shot in the arm for the JPA, which has been dealing with an FBI investigation into Tony Nelson, one of its board members, and contracts with the port that Nelson was involved with.

It's also good news for those seeking to use the service, either to import goods made in Asia or export items to Panama or Asia. "It will help satisfy some of the pent-up demand that's already in place and pave the way for a smoother ramp-up as they open the major terminal and dramatically increase operations," said Jerry Mallot, executive vice president of Cornerstone, the economic development arm of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce. "It's been a while in coming, and it's good to see the service begin."

Jacksonville will be the first port of call in the United States for the ships, which will head across the Pacific from Hong Kong and transit the Panama Canal along the way. The 55-day round trip will also include stops in Savannah, Ga., Norfolk, Va., and New York.

Starting in July allows the partners in the new line to get shippers who are signing contracts now on board; if the deals weren't in place now, service wouldn't really take off until this time next year.

"The idea of starting early in Jacksonville is to get a running start when our terminal opens," said Ed Huebbe, a spokesman for MOL.

Meanwhile, construction on that terminal, which will be run by TraPac Inc. - MOL's terminal operating subsidiary - continues apace. "I don't see any problems whatsoever," said Dennis Kelly, regional vice president for TraPac.

That terminal is slated to open in January, and the early arrival of the ships will help ease the port into the increase in cargo, Schleicher said. Much work remains to be done during the second half of the year, including large-scale road-construction projects near Dames Point designed to let the hundreds of trucks that will use the facility each day exit and enter smoothly.

"It's gearing up," Schleicher said. "It's not like they walked in and had 4,000 containers we had to move tomorrow. It gives us a chance to grow and grow."

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Revised: February 10, 2010 .

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