It all started simply enough. Port of Tacoma officials were attending a conference in Baltimore to hear about best practices around environmental issues in the world of international trade and port operations.
Alexander Noah was there from his home country of Liberia, doing a two-week visit of Maryland to learn the ins and outs of international shipping terminal operations at the Port of Baltimore. Some chatting led to more chatting and then an invitation to visit the Port of Tacoma for further tricks of the trade to bring back to his homeport of Greenville, Liberia.
“This trip is an eye-opening moment for me,” he said.
There are certainly differences between the high-volume American ports and the export-only Port of Greenville, which is located in southeast Liberia. Most notably among them involves pavement. Tacoma and Baltimore have paved roads. Greenville has only dirt streets, which Noah has an idea on how to change – toll roads, a system that is more common on the East Coast.
Another big difference is that Liberian ports largely operate as landlords to shipping companies that operate their own terminals. The terminal operators in Greenville almost exclusively ship non-containerized logs out of the region, with all the imported goods flowing into the West African nation’s largest port in the capital city of Monrovia.
But there are similarities between the ports. Dredging of the waterways, for example, is always an issue so the ports can handle the ever-growing size of modern vessels. Greenville’s waterway can get as shallow as 12 to 18 feet. Any waterway-deepening work to change that would take coordination, financing and planning, which are also suggestions Noah gained from his port tours that he will include in his report when he returns to Liberia this week.
Whether the visit leads to follow up discussions or a Sister City relationship is a matter to be determined in the future, but that really isn’t the point for Port of Tacoma Commissioner Clare Petrich.
“We always think that we have to have a formal structure for things, but sometimes it is just people to people, friends to friends,” she said. “It is great to be able to share and learn.”
Sometimes those opportunities are brief and informal. Sometimes they grow and become partnerships, such is the case with commerce and friendships. The most obvious result of those times when handshakes and smiles turn into friendships and bonds was the 2015 visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping that sprung up from Tacoma’s sister-city ties with Fuzhou, China. This led to his personal invitation to 100 Lincoln High School students to visit his country the following year. Xi had helped create the sister relationship with Tacoma when he was chairman of the Standing Committee of Fuzhou Municipal People’s Congress two decades earlier.
But there have been other times sibling cities help each other. Tacoma’s sister city of Brovary, Ukraine, for example, is buying a surplus ambulance from the Tacoma Fire Department that port officials are working to deliver there this winter.
“We do things like that all the time,” Petrich said. “That really is important. It’s great to be able to share and learn.”