Oxnard Harbor District
Port of Hueneme:
The Port the Farmers Built
By Bill Buratto
For hundreds of years, the coastal point at Hueneme has been an important link in the region’s sustainability and economic vitality, beginning with the earliest inhabitants. Hueneme, (pronounced, wye nee mee) is derived from a Chumash Indian word meaning “half-way” or “resting place.” It is about half way between Point Mugu and the mouth of the Santa Clara River. The port is believed to have been used to launch fishing expeditions that fed the people of the region.
Today, the Port of Hueneme, operated by the Oxnard Harbor District, is a bustling commercial port with a long and distinguished history. As the only deepwater port between San Pedro Bay and San Francisco, it has been designated as a “strategic port” by the Department of Defense supporting both commercial and national defense missions.
The Oxnard Harbor District is an “independent special district” under the California Harbors and Navigation Code. The District includes the cities of Oxnard and Port Hueneme and is led by five elected commissioners. It receives no taxes for its operations, operating entirely on Port generated revenues. Executive Director Anthony Taormina and his highly capable executive staff run the day-to-day operations of the Port.
The Port serves as the “back door” to the greater Los Angeles market and has road and rail connections that provide shippers access to markets in the Western Canadian Provinces, Pacific Northwest, Northern California, and the Southwest.
The transition to a commercial port began in 1867 when Thomas Bard, who would later serve in the U.S. Senate, saw the advantages of a port to serve the area’s growing agricultural concerns. In 1872, the 1,500 foot “Bard’s Wharf” was constructed to move goods between ships and the shore.
In the 1930’s, Richard Bard, son of Senator Bard, picked up the dream and worked tirelessly to bring a full-fledged commercial port to the Ventura County coast. Bard and local farmers applied for a Public Works Administration loan of $1.6 million to construct the Port. When their request was denied, they decided to create (through a vote of the people) the Oxnard Harbor District.
In April of 1937, the people voted for its creation. In May of 1938, the Harbor District proposed a $1.75 million bond issue to construct the Port. The bond issue was fully subscribed in 15 minutes. The Port, which became known as ”the port the farmers built,” may have been the first one built in this country without any federal money.
In March of 1942, as the war in the Pacific began, the U.S. Navy commandeered the Port and made it a naval base. They spent $6 million and built six docks, an amphibious-landing training school, and a SeaBee advance base, which is still located at Naval Base Ventura County. By the end of the war, the Hueneme wharves were handling 150,000 tons of military cargo a month.
Pronounced wye nee mee
Annual Movement of Goods
Direct and Indirect Employment
1,438,680 tons of cargo from 400 vessels
After the war, negotiations began to bring commercial activity back to the Port. In 1947, a lease agreement was reached for commercial use of Dock #1 and 16 of the 322 acres that had been given up earlier. The dock was renovated and totaled 1,800 feet, accommodating up to three ships. In the 1960’s the Oxnard Harbor District purchased Dock #1 and an additional six acres, bringing their total to 22 acres.
In the 1970’s, while other ports were focusing on containerization, the Port of Hueneme took a different route. Port leaders saw an opportunity in the break bulk and roll on/roll off markets (Ro/Ro).
Break bulk refers to non-containerized cargo that must be loaded and unloaded individually rather than within containers. Palletized fruits and vegetables fall into this category. Since 1979, Del Monte has used the Port as their west coast distribution hub. A major import is bananas. The 600,000 metric tons of bananas from Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Guatemala each year makes Port Hueneme one of the busiest banana gateways in the country. Other break bulk imports include pineapple, mangos, melons, cantaloupe, avocados, and fresh-cut flowers.
Roll on/roll off refers to cargo, such as cars, trucks, or trailers that can be driven on and off ships on their own wheels. Automobiles are the Port’s largest Ro/Ro market. BMW, Mini Cooper, Rolls Royce, Mitsubishi, Suzuki, Land Rover, Jaguar, Volvo, Saab, Hyundai, and Kia are just some of the manufacturers utilizing the Port.
Annually, more than $7 billion in cargo value moves through the Port generating more than $650 million in economic impact to the region, with 5,000 direct and indirect jobs. In 2006 the Port handled 1,438,680 tons of cargo from 400 vessels resulting in over 500,000 man-hours in labor generating $18,873,000 in wages.
Moving forward, the Port faces a number of challenges. Clearly the economic downturn over the past several years has impacted imports and exports. There have been fewer cars coming through the port. This situation is seen as temporary. Once the economy begins to recover, cargo activity is expected to once again rise to 2006 levels and beyond.
With little “lay down” space at the Port, the Harbor District emphasizes cargo velocity, encouraging customers to quickly move their imports away from its first point of rest to their final destination. They continue to partner with the Navy for additional space and look to purchase nearby property as it becomes available.
Moving cargo by rail and truck is central to port operations. Upgrading roads on intermodal routes remains a priority. The proposed project to redesign the Rice Road interchange at the 101 Freeway will have a major impact on the ability to get cargo in and out of the port.
In 1998, the Harbor District purchased what is now called the Ventura County Railway. Operated by Rail America, the VCRR covers 12 miles on four branches and plays a significant role in the transport of freight and goods serving the industrial areas of south Oxnard, the Port of Hueneme, and Naval Base Ventura County Port Hueneme Division. It connects with the Union Pacific Railroad (UPRR) Coast Main Line in downtown Oxnard. This strategic asset is instrumental for the future of the Port. Harbor District officials have had on-going discussions with the Ventura County Transportation Commission and UPRR to seek improvements and expansion of the current lines that will facilitate more efficient cargo movement.
New air quality regulations will require ships to access shore-side power to operate onboard equipment rather than utilize ship engines to generate power while in port. This power system will be expensive to install and operate. The Harbor District has applied for a federal grant under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to upgrade 1,400 feet of wharf structure leading to a US Army Corps of Engineers navigational project that will allow the installation of an electrical system to provide shore-side power for cargo vessels. This project is important for the future of the Port.
As in the past, the Port of Hueneme holds great promise for the economic vitality of Ventura County and the region. The current leadership maintains the same “can do” spirit that exemplifies the “the port the farmers built.”
Bill Buratto is President/CEO of the Ventura County Economic Development Association. He can be reached at email@example.com