Commerce, Culture, and Connection

  • Petur Petersen, Portland’s station manager, stands before stacked Eimskip containers. An Iceland native who has lived and worked all over the United States, Petersen says, “Portland feels more like home.”

  • On a fall morning, the Reykjafoss arrives packed with containers to be unloaded that afternoon.

  • From the Maine International Trade Center, president and state director of international trade Janine Cary (left) and the director of the Maine North Atlantic Development Office Dana Eidsness (right) are excited about Maine’s increased trade with Northern European and Scandinavian countries, as well as the opportunities for collaboration with Iceland on a wide range of projects in the fields of art, science, and more.

In the spring of 2013, Ryan Hamilton of Interphase Energy was riding his bike over the Casco Bay Bridge when something curious caught his eye. Tucked into Portland Harbor, in the shade of the bridge spanning the Fore River, Hamilton saw piles of giant blue and red containers emblazoned with the letters EIMSKIP—evidence that an international container shipping company, the likes of which Portland hadn’t seen for many years, was in operation.

Hamilton and his business partner, Jacob Roberson, were then in the process of starting a company that would distribute the energy-efficient, Danish-made Kedel pellet boiler throughout North America. They had presumed that it would be necessary to coordinate shipping out of New York City, but on that morning a more convenient and affordable option literally came into view. In March of 2013, Icelandic shipping company Eimskip made Portland their U.S. port of call. Taking advantage of Eimskip’s extensive shipping routes throughout Iceland, Scandinavia, and Northern Europe, Hamilton and Roberson have been shipping Kedel boilers from Denmark straight to the front door of their Maine startup for well over a year. Few have such a serendipitous story as Hamilton and Roberson, but more and more Maine business leaders are capitalizing on this new, direct access to premier markets.

At the end of last summer, on the morning of what would be a very hot day, I walked west along Commercial Street, past slumbering restaurants, boutique stores, and bakeries, past the gleaming facade of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute toward the tonal shift in the waterfront that happens around Rufus Deering Lumber Co. The smell of fish and sawdust becomes strong here. Large machines square dance along the edge of the road, and there are hand-painted signs advertising lobster for sale by the pound. Tucked into this commotion— surrounded by century-old fishing piers, fishermen, and fresh fish slated to ship via Eimskip to the European continent—are the Icelandic company’s headquarters at the International Marine Terminal.

“Why here?” I ask Petur Petersen, Portland’s station manager, in the chilly conference room of the clean, industrial office building. “Why now?” We’re sitting with Patrick Arnold, president of Soli DG, contracted by the Maine Port Authority to manage the site. We have Larus Isfeld, Eimskip’s U.S. general manager, on the phone.

In 2011, through a federal Department of Transportation grant, the state’s port authority invested five million dollars in a significant expansion of the terminal, making it possible to effectively handle larger and heavier shipments. This improvement happened around the time that Eimskip had begun looking for a New England home. The expanded terminal was a draw, but so too was the city’s business-friendly attitude and belief in the relevance of the port—the only American container-shipping terminal north of Boston. Arnold explains that the reasons for the port authority’s investment in the yard are similar to Eimskip’s. “The Old Port got its name because Portland has been an important shipping hub for the past 200 years,” says Arnold. “You have the convening rail structure—old rail infrastructure that connects you south to places like New York City, but also west to places like Montreal. You have enough critical mass in the northern part of New England and a lot of industrial facilities around here, while being just a stone’s throw to the northern Massachusetts manufacturing centers.”

The 100-year-old shipping company has been sailing to North America since 1915. Eimskip’s decision to move headquarters from Virginia to Maine was not made lightly. Now, their U.S. center of operations is significantly closer to Iceland and Europe. The company has a strong foothold in this Northeastern corner of the country, which, given the reality of melting ice caps and the creation of new shipping lanes like the Northern Sea Route, or eventually the Northwest Passage, could become more and more valuable in decades to come. Beyond the conjectures and the logistics, Petersen tells me that part of Portland’s appeal for Eimskip were the cultural similarities between Iceland, Eimskip’s Northern European markets, and Portland. “Portland feels more like home,” Petersen, who has lived all over the country, tells me. Our chilly, coastal corner of the country, with its small but serious art- and food-centered urban hub, makes cultural sense for Eimskip, as well as business sense— not that there is an extricable difference between the two. Roberson believes that like many Mainers, the people of Eimskip value authentic relationships. “You’ve got to build trust, but once you’ve done that, the relationship is solid,” he says. Hamilton and Roberson are bringing the Danish Kedel boiler to Maine because Mainers, like Northern Europeans, are serious about seeking alternative, efficient, and affordable energy sources to heat us through long, cold winters.

Recently, in small batches, Portland-brewed beer has been making the trek through icy Atlantic waters to bar taps in Stockholm, a city of people with the interest and income to imbibe Maine’s celebrated craft brews.

As it turns out, Portland’s growing reputation as a food and restaurant hub is not just good for Food and Wine articles, but also for capturing the attention and investment of a foreign shipping company. A leader in cold shipping logistics, Eimskip has been transporting fresh, frozen, and refrigerated products around the world for decades now. Upon moving operations to Maine, its leaders knew that they would be walking into significant business, thanks to the state’s well-established lobster industry and the U.S. market for cod and other fish from the North Atlantic.

Like the people at Eimskip, Janine Cary of the Maine International Trade Center identifies secondary (or “value-added”) food processing as an industry with serious potential for growth. She also sees potential for expanding distribution operations in Portland. Again, Maine’s proximity to multiple urban markets is an advantage: “We’re same-day delivery to the major cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Montreal. In that way, we’re not limited to just 1.3 million consumers. We’re extended to between 55 and 60 million consumers,” says Cary.

With a significant shipping provider in town, and the prospect of enhancing Portland’s rail infrastructure on the horizon, Portland becomes an even more appealing option for national and international food-production companies looking for a Northeast location with access to critical natural resources like quality water. “We’re the fourth-largest potato producer in the U.S., and we’re number one in terms of wild blueberries,” says Cary. “We’ve got a number of food companies coming out with very creative and innovative products, and I think that’s attracting industries to the Greater Portland area.”

Settled into the International Marine Terminal, one of Eimskip’s next challenges is to convince the city of Portland and the people of Maine that they are set on staying, and that the open channels between prosperous and culturally compatible countries will remain open. As this reality settles, the hope is that more businesses will begin to take advantage of Eimskip’s services. The shipping company is also calling for a shift in perspective. They believe Maine is strategically positioned as the obvious gateway to North America in the North Atlantic. Many Maine representatives would agree, but an end-of-the-road mentality is still prevalent among some in Maine. Many of us—myself included—can be sentimental about the state’s out-of-the-way location in the Northeastern corner of the county, its empty woods and rugged appeal. But dwelling on Maine’s somewhat rogue domestic status can cause us to forget its international relevance.

In that chilly conference room, in the midst of conversations about Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson visiting Maine and Governor Paul LePage visiting Iceland; about Icelandic bands and electronic artists performing in Portland and the trade mission to the island that took place in June, I’m shown a map. Portland is situated in the top left corner. Along the bottom of the page, Western- and Northern-European port cities are highlighted, stitched to the Faroe Islands and Iceland and America with shipping routes marked in bright colors.

New maps trigger the imagination, make it possible to envision fresh possibilities for our creative, resource-rich, coastal state. Just like that, I understand the sea as central. Distance is not just geographical, Isfeld and Arnold reiterate. “It’s a matter of competition in trade lanes,” Arnold said at a symposium on new Arctic Sea routes held last spring. A $2,000 shipping fee could get you from Maine to Delaware, or to the United Kingdom, or Norway.

Since commerce and culture are intertwined, the opportunities for enrichment are mutual and multifaceted. Along with Maine beer and blueberries, Isfeld and Arnold are excited about sharing the work of Maine artists with Icelandic audiences and Icelandic artists with Maine audiences, about facilitating greater connection between these oceanside communities that share many of the same values. Dana Eidsness, the director of the Maine North Atlantic Development Office, calls Eimskip’s presence in Portland a “game changer” and speaks excitedly about the idea sharing already going on. “Innovation is at the heart of culture in Iceland and drives the relationships that are developing between Maine and Iceland,” says Eidsness. She tells me about Iceland Ocean Cluster—a business with a multidisciplinary approach to studying a natural resource, such as cod, to consider possible inventions or implications in the fields of fishery management, medical technology, cosmetic industries, and so on. Plans to replicate this economic driver are now underway, after they were officially announced in October from the Pierce Atwood offices.

A week after our first meeting, I return to the International Marine Terminal on “ship day” to visit with Petersen. The 2007-built Reykjafoss has arrived, and containers are being unloaded with massive cranes while seagulls dip and dive overhead. In a neon vest, watching longshoremen do what longshoremen have done for centuries in the Old Port, it occurs to me that these are the heavy lifters of local economies around the world. Eimskip will make a difference here. Portland will make a difference to Eimskip. How much of a difference, time will tell. But the view from here is encouraging. Tomorrow, a new set of containers, filled with processed lobster meat, or lumber, or chocolate, or perhaps ski grooming equipment that had been on loan from Europe, will be piled like blocks aboard the ship and the Reykjafoss will set off through Casco Bay like some kind of Lego mirage only to return, again and again, with all kinds of goods, for years to come.

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