While many of those barges would normally have been built in the big shipyards along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Katrina shredded their production schedules and scattered the Southeast’s skilled labor force. Owing to Portland’s shipbuilding infrastructure and proximity to the Columbia River, “The city is probably the only place on the West Coast where you can build a big oceangoing barge,” says Allen Walker of the Shipbuilders Council of America. Adding to the demand, Hawaii and Alaska need more barges to serve their growing economies, while the Gulf States now find themselves on the demand side of the equation, looking for barges to service damaged offshore oil rigs.
In a free market, these barges would all be built in Japan, Korea or China. (“It’s way cheaper to build anything heavy abroad,” says U.S. Barge’s Foti. “Waaaay cheaper.”) But the barge business is emphatically not a free market. Domestic shipping is governed by an arcane piece of protectionism known as the Jones Act, which stipulates that all vessels hauling goods between U.S. ports be built in the U.S. Any company that wants to move, say, a load of diesel fuel from Seattle to San Francisco has to do so on an American-made barge.
Less glamourous than ships, barges are the true workhorses of U.S. waterways.
Not everyone is thrilled about Foti’s latest venture. Plenty of people still remember back when his ship-repair business, Cascade General, bought the Swan Island shipyard from the Port of Portland in 2000 for $31 million—a price critics claimed was far too low. About a year later, Foti made headlines again when he decided to sell the yard’s crown jewel, Dry Dock 4, to an outfit in the Bahamas for $25 million, a transaction that left him master of 57 acres of prime industrial waterfront and with a reputation as an opportunist and a sharp operator.
Today Foti insists that selling Dry Dock 4 was the only way to keep his yard afloat. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says. “We have a thriving barge business and more than 150 new jobs. Does that sound bad to you?”
For now, at least, there seems to be enough business to keep all the yards working. On a blustery October afternoon, scores of U.S. Barge workers and their families gathered at Berth 314 to witness the christening of the Ho’omaka Hou. As the waning sun glistened on the river’s purple surface, a troupe of traditional Hawaiian dancers stationed on the barge’s vast deck chanted and waved ti leaves and garlands of flowers. One welder, her fingers still grimy from the day’s shift, stood on the dock and gazed at the barge that she helped to construct. What was she feeling? “Pride,” she answered. “I’m proud to be here.”
When the dancers finished their incantation, Angela Scalzo, the wife of the chief operating officer of the barge’s new owner, smashed a bottle of champagne against the vessel’s breakwater. As the crowd cheered, and the tugs escorting the boat into the Willamette blew their horns, it was hard not to feel that the shipyard had regained some of its old swagger.