Looking back at my notes of my conversation with Chris Gutierrez, President of SmartPort in Kansas City, I see terms like: 3PL; freight flow; TDE; EDS; geo-fencing; and so on. It's a whole new alphabet soup of jargon I'm not too familar with.
But what it boils down to is simple -- it's all about freight, and getting as much of it for the Kansas City area as possible.
Kansas City has long been a hub of commerce. From the early days of Lewis & Clark and the Pony Express to today's high-speed world where data transfer and computer technology is a key to commerce, Kansas City has played a leading role.
SmartPort was set up seven years ago by a coalition of organizations (such as the Greater Kansas City Area Chamber of Commerce; the Mid-America Regional Council; and the Kansas City Area Development Council) and investors; with the goal of promoting more inland trade. The idea was that Kansas City should think of itself as a port city, just as places like Los Angeles, Houston, and Baltimore do.
SmartPort, as Chris described it to me, has three core missions: economic development; development of technology that supports economic development; and "business services" -- which reflects SmartPorts "umbrella" role in making sure there's inter-industry coordination.
The Kansas City metro area, which encompasses 18 counties in Kansas and Missouri, is one of the nation's top locations for distribution centers. Chris mentioned four distribution centers that just recently opened -- each over 500,000 square feet (including Pacific Swimwear in Olathe).
The area also has perhaps the largest amount of underground storage space in the country (more on that in a separate post). Understandably, that means that the transportation system is of vital importance for the trucks and rail that service distribution facilities.
One area that SmartPort has been focusing on is "intelligent transportation systems" which will allow for better tracking of freight movements. Right now, as Chris explained, shippers often have to deal with a series of separate companies as their freight moves from its origin to destination. This adds time to the freight movement. The idea is to develop an integrated tracking system -- sort of one-stop shopping for shippers -- so that businesses can easily track their shipment on a single computer page. Chris believes the efficiencies from this will have an enormous impact. The system should be fully operational the first quarter of '08.
Another promising initiative is to establish Kansas City as an inland processing port for freight going to and from Mexico and Asia. This will allow exporters, for example, to clear customs in Kansas City rather than at the Texas-Mexico border -- speeding shipment times. One key part of the plan is Kansas City Southern Railroad's (KCS) interest in this -- which makes sense given that one of its principal rail corridors is between Kansas City and Texas. But even more important is the fact that KCS has a Mexican subsidiary that has rail into the Mexican Pacific Ocean port of Lazaro Cardenas -- the only railroad that serves this port. So, as Chris notes, you'd have a single rail pipeline from the Pacific (for Asian trade) directly to Kansas City.
Chris' advice to planners is to think about freight when planning a region's transportation infrastructure. As he commented to me, "freight is usually not a dominant voice at the table, but you need to make sure you engage them and listen to their needs."
Before leaving Chris I asked him how he got interested in spending his time dealing with freight and international commerce. It goes back to his school days in Akron, Ohio, when he started collecting beer cans. His father helped supply the empties. Then Chris sent his U.S. beer cans overseas to trade for exotic, foreign empty beer cans. His collection triggered a life-long fascination with international trade!
p.s., as for the acronym soup, 3PL stands for third party logistics; EDS is electronic data systems; TDE is trade data exchange. But don't ask me what these really mean. I need to learn more about this fascinating field when I get back home.