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A Major Maritime Mission in Monroe

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The new director of the Port of Monroe says this port is key to the area’s economic revival.

Paul C. LaMarre III gets a disappointingly common reaction when he tells friends about his new job as director of the Port of Monroe.

“Monroe has a port?” they ask.

Mr. LaMarre, 31, plans to change that. After about two weeks on the job, he appears to have grasped the task at hand, and is inspired by the old photos in the Port of Monroe offices that show ships wintering at the port during its heyday in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Mr. LaMarre is the first full-time director at the Monroe port since 1978, when the late Max McCray left the post, largely due to declining port business and a desire to retire. Mr. LaMarre, a Milan resident and Michigan native, was about 2 when Mr. McCray left the job.

“We’ve come full circle,” Mr. LaMarre says. “We have the appropriate partners and property to once again let this port handle major tonnage on the Great Lakes.”

Recently, the port has seen traffic averaging about 1.8 million tons a year — small by most measures — putting it in the bottom third of U.S. ports with about half the cargo Toledo gets. “There’s room to exponentially increase that,” says Mr. LaMarre, who left a post as director of maritime affairs at the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority to take the Monroe job.

Largely due to recovery in the auto industry, Great Lakes cargo on U.S.-flagged freighters rose about 5.7 percent in 2011 from the prior year, according to the Lakes Carriers’ Association, a shipping industry group.

Mr. LaMarre suggests growth at the Monroe port should continue. “Our biggest advantages are a strategic location, waterfront properties, experienced and diverse tenants, coupled with a supportive city administration and a willing community,” he said. “Our only disadvantage at this point is draft limitations.”

He notes that a typical Lakes freighter has a draft of 26.5 feet. But the River Raisin’s navigation channel to the port turning basin is 22 feet deep, and beneath the river bottom’s silt is bedrock, making channel deepening unlikely anytime soon.

Stats show that a 1-inch loss of navigable depth means even the smallest freighter will have to forego about 100 tons of cargo.

But Mr. LaMarre also worries about Michigan’s rules for ship ballast water that he says are among the most restrictive in the Great Lakes. He says the rules, designed to keep invasive species from the Great Lakes, also have kept international freighters out of Michigan’s Great Lakes waters and hampered the ability of Michigan businesses to export products to the rest of the world.

He and the Association of Great Lakes Ports are backing Michigan Senate Bill 1212, introduced July 18, that would make Michigan standards — which produced a big battle when adopted five years ago — to conform more with federal ballast water standards.

“This is an issue I knew would be immediately at the top of my radar,” he says. “I intend to work collaboratively with other ports to ensure that industry, agriculture and citizens in Michigan are aware of what this could do to our economy.”

The law has withstood federal court challenges, and Mr. LaMarre acknowledges he faces a formidable battle. But, he says, “I like a challenge. I believe everything happens for a reason and in its due time. There’s no better time than now for the community and port to come together and work on this.”

He says typical Great Lakes cargoes are particularly crucial to the nation’s economy. “Domestic vessels transiting the Great Lakes carry iron ore, which is what the steel in our cars is made from; coal, which produces the electricity that keeps our lights on; aggregate, which is used in our roads and driveways, and grains for our kitchen tables.”

Mr. LaMarre’s hiring is one sign that business has been picking up at the port. Indeed, two major firms have settled at the port in recent years — Ventower Industries, a wind-tower maker, and Barnhart Crane & Rigging, which developed a regional office at the port.

As port director, Mr. LaMarre will be responsible for the port itself as well as the city’s industrial parks and Monroe Custer Airport.

Monroe Mayor Robert C. Clark said Mr. LaMarre should be an asset. “I think he’s energetic, enthusiastic and has a great, broad knowledge of the Great Lakes basin,” Mayor Clark said. “I think he’s going to be fabulous for the Port of Monroe, the City of Monroe and the Monroe County region.” 

Indeed, it might be said that Mr. LaMarre has Great Lakes water in his veins.

He’s the third generation to make his living from the maritime industry and got his feet wet in it through his dad, Paul C. LaMarre Jr., a longtime mariner and noted marine artist. His idea of a vacation was booking a trip for his family on a freighter.

“My fondest memories in childhood are of taking trips on Great Lakes freighters,” the new port director says. At age 12, while in the wheelhouse of the Elton Hoyt II, a 698-foot freighter docked at Rogers City, he was invited to take the helm and steer the big ship from the pier. When he saw the stern swinging past the shore as the freighter swung downbound on Lake Huron, he plotted his life’s course.

“I’ve always been passionate about the industry, but at that point, I was hooked,” he says.

Born in Dearborn, he grew up on Grosse Ile and graduated from Brother Rice High School in Bloomfield Hills. After graduating from the California Maritime Academy, he worked as a merchant mariner on the Great Lakes until joining the Navy, where he piloted an F/A-18 Hornet. After discharge, he worked with his dad’s tugboat company until becoming director of the Willis Boyer museum ship in Toledo in 2007, shepherding it through a massive restoration and rechristening it to its original name as the Col. James M. Schoonmaker. The freighter is to be a focal point of the new National Great Lakes Maritime Museum to open at the Toledo Marina District next year.

He has played a key role in developing that museum, though the Monroe port now becomes his priority.

“My main goal is sustainability of the maritime industry,” he says, adding that the port fits into that mission. “You essentially could approach this as a blank canvas and advocate for the maritime industry. Every lakefront town exists, above anything else, because of its strategic position on a waterway. That waterway is an important part of that community’s survival.”

Part of that survival formula, he says, “is letting people know the Port of Monroe is reinvigorated.”