Airport facility could boost area’s import/export business

Tuesday, July 24, 2007 at 1:30am

A 130,000-square-foot perishables facility proposed for Nashville International Airport (NIA) could soon make Middle Tennessee a go-to destination for air-shipped imports of fresh seafood and flowers, as well as the exporter of choice for domestic produce on its way overseas.

The Fresh Link Inc. — a new company led by former Dell Inc. logistics executive, TSU College of Business graduate program director Raoul Russell and longtime grocery professional and former Seafood Systems co-owner/president Bob Wilson — is raising $10 million to build the $8.5 million facility on 13 acres leased on the western side of the NIA property. The company also has several silent partners, Russell said.

The building itself would be owned by R&B Properties. The remaining $1.5 million raised would go into Fresh Link itself, which would then rent the perishables facility from R&B Properties. Russell says he expects the facility to be up and running within 18 months once ground is broken.

Until then, said Russell, Fresh Link will use temporary facilities off NIA property to import and export perishables. Russell said that much of Fresh Link’s business will come from current customers from other brokerages the principals own, and that Fresh Link would simply route the goods through Nashville.

Russell said Fresh Link is also in contract negotiations with new customers as well.

It’s needed, Russell said, to break the bottleneck Miami has on much of the perishable air freight business in the Southeast, particularly imports from Central and South America. Miami is currently ranked No. 1 among all U.S. airports in international freight, according to preliminary 2006 figures.

Fresh South American seafood arriving through Fresh Link in Nashville, for instance, could arrive in front of Middle Tennessee customers up to five days faster than seafood imports going through Miami gateways, Russell said.

Tommy Jones, director of business development for NIA, says the airport is currently negotiating the lease price with Fresh Link, and would work closely with Fresh Link to build the facility.

“We’ll lease to them whatever they need,” said Jones, noting NIA has close to 100 acres of land it’s able to lease to air cargo companies on the western side of NIA.

The airport has also spent $4 million in the last few years to put in roads and infrastructure such as sewer and water lines on the property as well, Jones said.

A prime export target for Fresh Link’s domestic products, such as strawberries, would be China. Russell said that the existing Chinese import and export accounts the company is taking aboard run through facilities in Tianjin, near Beijing.

Nashville, as well as importers and exporters in this part of the U.S., would be the winner here once the facility is finished, said both Jones and Russell.

“This would be the only refrigerated facility on an airport tarmac in this part of the U.S.,” said Russell. For instance, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson airport has a perishables facility with only 42,000-square-feet of temperature-controlled storage — less than one-third the size of Fresh Link’s proposed NIA facility.

Other air cargo hubs — such as Memphis — have no perishables facilities at all, at least at the airports themselves, said NIA’s Jones.

In fact, Jones said the new facility might be enough in itself to increase 747 flights to and from China into Nashville.

Currently, China Air flies six 747 cargo flights into NIA from Taiwan each month, with much of the import cargo being computer parts from Asia. Outgoing freight consists of a variety of commodities, but not all of it from Middle Tennessee.

The China Air planes also stop in Dallas, San Francisco and other cities to pick up exports being shipped from the U.S. to Asia.

Jones said NIA is working hand-in-hand with the State of Tennessee to increase the area’s outbound exports on the giant planes. A perishables facility such as Fresh Link’s proposal could help increase Tennessee exports to Asia.

“This might be an incentive to add a seventh flight for China Air,” said Jones.

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