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While maritime trade can be traced back to ancient civilizations in previous millennia, sea freight and ports have never been more important than they are today.

The lifeblood of global commerce, seaports handle almost 811 million TEUs every year, supporting industries of all shapes and sizes all over the world. Indeed, many of the United States’ maritime logistics hubs are some of the largest, their associated economic development corporations (EDCs) having helped to accelerate their growth and value to regional, national and global economies.

In this 2021 roundup of 15 U.S. port cities, we analyze the role of some of the country’s key logistics hubs—as well as the role their economic development engines play in ensuring their continual progression.

Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles is arguably the West Coast’s most important intermodal transport hub, the beating heart of which is the Port of Los Angeles–a seaport covering 7,500 acres of land and water along 43 miles of waterfront. It is the nation’s No. 1 container port, with its state-of-the-art facilities seeing it move 9.2 million TEUs in 2020. Port of Los Angeles also adjoins to the Port of Long Beach, another one of the busiest seaports in the world, moving around 7.5 million TEUs every year. Both ports are supported by the efforts of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, the regional EDC combining economic research with industry programs, workforce development, business assistance and policy changes that promote a thriving local economy, for which these two ports are vital. 

New York City, New York

New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC) is the EDC for the nation’s most highly populated city, home to more than 8 million people. A mission-driven non-profit, it aims to support the city by creating prosperity through investing in neighborhoods, building sustainably, creating workforce opportunities and advancing company growth. In achieving these goals, it works closely with the Port of New York and New Jersey. Recently, it has been helping to develop a visionary freight system, supported the major South Brooklyn Marine Terminal project and completed a 2019 survey of the NYC and NJ maritime community. “Through PortNYC and other initiatives, we’re working to ensure both the long-term health of the maritime industry in NYC and the city’s economy as a whole,” NYCEDC states.

New Orleans, Louisiana

With the simple mission of creating a region with a thriving economy and an excellent quality of life, Greater New Orleans (GNO) pursues a two-pronged strategy as the EDC for the region. This includes helping to attract, retain and develop key businesses (Business Development), and propose, promote and facilitate policies and programs that improve business conditions (Business Environment). Such efforts have assisted in securing a new ground-breaking Lineage Logistics project at the Port of New Orleans, the organization having committed $42 million to the expansion of the Jourdan Road cold-storage facility in New Orleans East in April 2021. “The cold-storage complex at Jourdan Road along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal will grow from 160,000 square feet to 304,000 square feet,” an announcement from GNO reads.

Oakland, California

While Oakland is home to fewer than half a million people, its maritime logistics hub–Port of Oakland–is renowned as a key gateway to U.S. commerce. It oversees 1,300 acres of maritime-related facilities serving a local market of more than 14.5 million consumers, with 34 million people located within a seven-hour drive of its facilities. Supporting Port of Oakland’s thriving economic activity is the East Bay Economic Development Alliance (EDA). The two have an intertwined relationship, the EDA having previously supported harbor dredging activities in 1991 and 2009, and assisted stakeholders in resolving the transportation impacts created by the port’s growth in 2003. In 2020, it also recognized the port at its Innovation Awards for its significant contributions as a long-standing generator of jobs and economic vitality in the region.

Norfolk, Virginia

The city of Norfolk, Virginia, is home to a vibrant intermodal transport scene, in large part thanks to a formidable maritime history centered around the enormous naval base on Chesapeake Bay and the Port of Virginia. The port boasts of the largest percentage of rail arrivals and departures on the East Coast, is directly responsible for nearly 40,000 jobs, and managed 2,327 vessel calls and departures in 2019, equating to around 3 million TEUs and 55 million tons of cargo worth almost $75 billion. The Hampton Roads Economic Development Alliance (EDA) has long assisted both domestic and international firms wishing to invest in the Norfolk area, offering three lucrative tax incentives to companies using the port: The Port Volume Increase Tax Credit, Barge and Rail Use Tax Credit and International Trade Facility Tax Credit.

Savannah, Georgia

The Savannah Economic Development Authority (SEDA) is the EDC for Savannah, its goal being to help create, grow and attract new job opportunities and investment in the region. It attracts and supports a variety of organizations through customized services that include anything from infrastructure and real estate opportunities to incentives and tax abatements. Much of Savannah’s draw stems from the Port of Savannah, where 85% of the world’s top 3PLs operate in Georgia. To maintain this competitive advantage, SEDA actively supports several logistics-related projects, including the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project, the Mid-American Arc Initiative & International, and The Center of Innovation for Logistics for the state of Georgia.

Houston, Texas

Originally founded in 1840, the Greater Houston Partnership (GHP) strives to make the region the best place to live, work and build a business, serving a thousand-member companies and 7.1 million people in the 12-county Houston region. It is a fervent supporter of the Port of Houston, hosting an annual State of the Port conference, outlining the logistics hub’s performance, future growth opportunities and capital investment plans to regional economic players. The overall impact of the port on a national level includes 3.2 million jobs, $801.9 billion in economic value and more than $38.1 billion in tax revenue. “As the largest port in foreign tonnage in the nation, Port Houston is an economic engine supporting the Houston region, the state of Texas, and the nation,” GHP states. 

Tampa, Florida 

The Tampa Bay Economic Development Council (EDC) has remained the designated economic development agency for Hillsborough County for 12 years, also serving the surrounding cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace. Currently it is delivering upon a 2020-2022 strategic action plan geared toward achieving business development, talent attraction and placemaking. As part of this vision, the EDC provides several incentives to business, creating high-wage jobs in high-value industries. In terms of its engagements with the ports, logistics and supply chain industry, it supports those organizations seeking real estate opportunities not only at the Port of Tampa Bay, but equally in Port Redwing and Port Ybor. 

Chicago, Illinois

The Windy City is extremely well connected, in large part thanks to what is North America’s largest inland port–the CenterPoint Intermodal Center. Located in the Joilet and Elwood area, it is a 6,400-acre, master-planned intermodal development which handles approximately three million TEUs every year. The site is also home to more than 30 economic powerhouse tenant companies that between them occupy over 14 million square feet of space. The Chicago Regional Growth Corporation plays a key role in supporting the city and region’s buoyant logistics activities, priding itself on a “history of working together” with key partners to developed projects leading to growth, investment and the creation of quality jobs.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The Port of Philadelphia, also known as PhilaPort, holds several impressive accolades. Not only is it the fastest growing port in the U.S., having achieved a 7% increase in container volumes in 2020. Equally, it generates roughly 55,000 jobs for the local region, handles 6.4 million metric tons annually, is the largest refrigerated port in the country and helps to generate $30.5 billion in trade every year. The Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. (PIDC) continues to play a crucial role in helping the port to reach new heights. The city’s EDC, the PIDC has leveraged $30 billion in total investment and assisted in retaining and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in Philadelphia since its foundation 62 years ago. The local seaport industry’s latest venture, announced March 2021, will see the development of a $23 million distribution center that is set to add more than 200,000 square feet of flexible, food-grade storage within one mile of Packer Avenue Marine Terminal.

Mobile, Alabama

The Port of Mobile is a significant contributor to the city’s economy. Indeed, the figures speak for themselves. According to the Alabama State Port Authority, its economic impact includes roughly 155,000 direct and indirect jobs, $559.3 million in direct and indirect tax impact, and a total economic value $25.4 billion. The Economic Development Partnership of Alabama (EDPA) has supported the growth of these numbers over many years, having worked to support companies compete not only locally but on a global stage. The EDPA helps various free trade zones (FTZs) to flourish while also providing tax incentives, support for startups and management of the region’s transport links that are vital to its intermodal abilities and more. 

Matagorda County, Texas

Matagorda County is privileged enough to be the home of two ports: Port of Bay City and Port of Palacios. The former has approximately 150 acres of land available for commercial development, providing access to the Colorado River Channel, while the latter equally provides opportunities and parcels for long-term lease and development. Both ports are backed by the Matagorda County EDC that provides key economic contributors with incentives including employee recruitment and training, tailored services to help locate or expand, tax abatement policies and tax-free industrial and environmental bonds.

Baltimore, Maryland

The City of Baltimore is home to one of Maryland’s four FTZs. Serving as the administrator of the FTZ is the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), which is  mandated to grow the city’s economy in an inclusive manner by retaining, expanding and attracting businesses and promoting investment. Port of Baltimore forms a large part of these activities, being one of the 10 busiest ports in the U.S. and serving a significant part of the East Coast. The bulk of the products that pass through the port, and indeed the FTZ, includes cars, paper and steel, with BDC itself reporting that the total value of shipments through Baltimore’s FTZ was more than $19.9 billion in 2017.

Cleveland, Ohio

The Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP) is a particularly active EDC, supporting the city and its 12,000 members as a catalyst for business growth and development in its various forms. It works closely with the Port of Cleveland, the latter responsible for more than 20,000 jobs and $3.5 billion in annual economic activity tied to the 13 million tons of cargo it handles per annum. With support from GCP, the port announced in May 2012 that it would be moving ahead with $20 million in projects that will include dock improvements, main gate enhancements and the construction of a state-of-the-art customs processing facility. This latest investment follows the completion of a $1.1 million cruise terminal processing center and $10.36 million extension of the Cleveland Bulk Terminal iron ore tunnel in 2020, the latter anticipated to bring another 1 million tons of cargo each year to the port. 

Memphis, Tennessee

Memphis is an interesting proposition, being the home of one of the country’s most active intermodal freight hubs and the thriving Port of Memphis, despite being in a landlocked state in Tennessee. The port serves 150 industries and handles a rich variety of goods, from petroleum and cement to grain and steel. It is able to connect these vital goods with the rest of the country thanks to the Mississippi River, five Class 1 railroads, major north-south and east-west interstate highways, and the nearby airport. Such is its critical role in accelerating economic activity, it carries an annual economic impact of more than $9.2 billion. Created in 2011, the Economic and Development Growth Engine (EDGE) for Memphis and Shelby County helps to support the region’s buoyant logistics industry, managing its foreign trade zone, providing business loans and tax incentives, and overseeing the Memphis Port Commission. 


An Ocean of Potential in the Blue Economy

The Blue Economy

The ocean has always been an essential part of life on this blue planet. Oceans cover over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of the world’s water. We rely on its resources to sustain and improve our lives.

The World Bank created a definition for this “blue economy” that encompasses “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.”

Economic activities associated with the ocean include traditional sectors such as commercial fishing, coastal tourism and maritime transport to support global commerce. Increasingly, the ocean has been tapped for energy sources and generation of off-shore renewable energies like wind and tidal energy. Marine life is explored for applications to pharmaceuticals, desalination offers an opportunity to meet demand for freshwater, and the ocean can be used for carbon sequestration to mitigate climate impacts.

World Bank Definition of Blue Economy

Vital to Livelihoods and Growth

In one form or another, trade in ocean resources contributes between $3-6 trillion to global GDP, supporting the livelihoods of over 3 billion people on the planet.

Recognizing the importance of measuring the economic impact of the ocean, the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) in 2019 to develop prototype statistics to measure the ocean’s contribution to the U.S. economy. From aquaculture to shipbuilding, offshore mining and power generation, marine-related activities contributed some $373 billion to U.S. GDP in 2018.

Tourism and recreation generated the most, bringing in just shy of $143 billion in wages, profits, and tax revenue for coastal communities in the U.S. in 2018. The new data also showed that between 2014 and 2018, the American blue economy grew faster than the overall U.S. economy.

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis

U.S. Ocean Economy

value added by activity in 2018 (millions of dollars)

Tourism and recreation – 38%

National defense and public administration – 33%

Living marine resources – 3%

Marine transportation – 1%

Offshore minerals and utilities – 15%

Deeper Dive into the Ocean Economy

Fisheries and Aquaculture

The ocean delivers a vital and primary source of protein in the diets of over 3 billion people. Marine fisheries employ over 200 million people either directly or indirectly. Expanded global availability of refrigerated storage and transportation has extended access to all kinds of fresh fish.

Overfishing, exacerbated by heavy government subsidies, has become a key concern, putting nearly 90 percent of the world’s fish stocks are at risk. Both the UN and the WTO have made removing these subsidies a priority to help protect vulnerable coastal communities who rely on fish for their own consumption and the local economy.

One-half of all fish we eat is farmed rather than captured. Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world. China produces a huge amount of the world’s farmed fish and is the top producer by value of carp, tilapia, catfish, shrimp, oysters and many other types. Norway leads in salmon, trout and smelt with Chile a close second.


Tourism has long been vital to many coastal economies. Overall, tourism employs 1 out of every 11 people around the world. It is fast becoming one of the world’s biggest industries, making up 10 percent of global GDP. International tourism is an invisible export. Visitors spend money on transportation, housing and entertainment using income earned in their home country.

From scuba diving and surfing to cruises and all-inclusive beach resorts, coastal tourism comes in many flavors. It is particularly important for less-developed nations, as it creates jobs, promotes economic growth, and brings in money that is spent in local businesses like restaurants, shops, and tour services.

Tourism is the economic lifeblood of many Least Developed Countries and small island developing states such as those in the Caribbean and southeast Asia that collectively host 41 million visitors visit every year. These states are focused on delivering services to bring in more tourists while preserving the natural beauty and resources that attract visitors to their islands.


Over 80 percent of goods traded internationally such as raw materials, food, consumer goods, and energy products were transported by sea in 2015. Despite reaching a record high of 11 billion tonnes shipped that year, world maritime trade growth decelerated to 2.7 percent in 2018, below the historical average of 3.0, reflecting a range of risks that intensified at the time including global trade tensions, protectionism, and the ‘Brexit’ decision.

Issues surrounding maritime transport are often intertwined with other global economic, environmental and political trends. Security conflicts occur over country ownership of key shipping routes and global discussions are active over the environmental impacts of fuel-guzzling container ships.

The world’s ports can often act as a weather vane for the economy as a whole. Dockworkers feel the effects of tariffs, disasters, and other trade policy changes before farmers, truckers, distributors and retailers do. Effects of the recent U.S.-China trade war and of the COVID-19 pandemic were experienced by dockers who saw the vast reductions in imports before the economic effects rippled throughout the economy.

As supply chains continue to shift and we watch for reshoring, the maritime transport sector may start to look different over the next few years, but will undoubtedly remain an essential part of the global economy.

Stats how we rely on the ocean

Preserving Our Oceans

Sustainability is a key aspect of the blue economy. Although there is an emphasis on environmental stewardship and protection in all parts of the, nowhere is this more apparent than when it comes to our oceans, a finite and critical resource.

Overfishing or pollution could deplete fish stocks and cause a severe food crisis. Environmental degradation caused by the tourism industry could ruin the economies of coastal communities. Waste and pollution from shipping could cause accumulated damage to our air and water.

According to Conservation International eight million metric tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean every year. At this rate, by 2050, plastic would outweigh fish in the ocean. Other concerns cited include the runoff of harmful nutrients from agriculture into the ocean, warming temperatures that are bleaching and destroying coral reefs, and even noise pollution from shipping that is killing creatures such as jellyfish.

International governmental cooperation and advances in technology can combat these problems. Conservation and sustainable use form one of the five pillars used by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) as part of their Ocean’s Economy and Trade Strategy project. This effort aims to mitigate damage while maintaining the important economic benefits of the blue economy that supports billions of people.

It seems no aspect of economic life has been spared disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, including many parts of the blue economy and related livelihoods. UNCTAD released a report to chart the waters of re-opening the blue economy to become more resilient post-pandemic. It proposes enhanced coordination and communication between fisheries and distributors to cut down on food waste, exercising restraint in sanitary protectionism, and closely monitoring shipping to prevent bottlenecks and delays. UNCTAD also suggests removing fishing subsidies to tackle wasteful overfishing; developing a “2.0 approach” to coastal tourism that showcases local sustainability efforts; and digitizing maritime trade procedures to achieve efficiencies and reduce CO2 emissions.

Untapped Potential

There is still a lot we don’t know about the world’s oceans, so embracing science and discovery will play an important role as we continue to draw on its precious resources and develop new markets. Untapped economic potential includes the capture of carbon, supporting the existence of a rich oceanic biodiversity, waste disposal, and the protection of coasts.

The blue economy is as diverse as its land-based counterpart – perhaps even more so. Sustainability will continue to be extremely important both for its own sake and for the preservation of the resources we rely on every day. With careful stewardship, the blue economy can continue to support billions of people and enrich all of our lives.


Alice Calder received her MA in Applied Economics at GMU. Originally from the UK, where she received her BA in Philosophy and Political Economy from the University of Exeter, living and working internationally sparked her interest in trade issues as well as the intersection of economics and culture.

This article originally appeared on Republished with permission.