Leonard Barnes, Port of Grays Harbor deputy director, counted the rows and rows of shiny new Kia vehicles as thousands were parked in neat...

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ABERDEEN — Leonard Barnes, Port of Grays Harbor deputy director, counted the rows and rows of shiny new Kia vehicles as thousands were parked in neat lines along Marine Terminal 4.

“This space used to be all logs,” he said.

From more than a dozen stories up on the bridge of the massive Morning Menad, Barnes looked down last week on the first shipment of automobiles to unload in Grays Harbor.

“We’re very excited,” Barnes said.

Far below, longshore workers bustled, zipping back and forth to retrieve and place almost 3,200 new Kia cars and sport-utility vehicles into carefully measured rows.

Barnes said the Port had been working to attract auto dealers for years, and finally broke through with the Pasha Group as excess inventory forces automakers to find new storage space.

The shipment out of South Korea was directed to Grays Harbor at the last minute last Wednesday.

Michael Pasha, general manager of port development for the Pasha Group, walked out on the ship’s wing with Barnes to survey the unloading.

“They’re running out of space in other ports,” Pasha said. “We think it’s a short-term opportunity that will turn into a long-term opportunity (for Grays Harbor).”

The Pasha Group, which specializes in transporting and processing new cars for manufacturers, found Grays Harbor a central location with strong transportation connections and plenty of space.

Pasha said as the economy has slowed and inventory backed up, dealers have been forced to find new locations to store their overflow of vehicles. “It’s happening all over the country,” he said.

Under operation by Eukor Car Carriers, the Morning Menad towered over Terminal 4 much of last week.

The 3,184 vehicles were unloaded and will remain parked on Port property until they can be moved to dealerships throughout the region.

“They’re going to stay here for a while,” Pasha said.

Though the agreement is the result of the economic downturn, Pasha said he believes the immediate storage issue could turn into a much larger local operation.

Last week’s “trial shipment” could prove to be the break Grays Harbor needs to develop itself as an auto port, he said.

Barnes said the recent shipment required more than 75 workers to help guide in the vessel and unload the vehicles. One of the Pasha Group’s facilities near San Diego regularly employees about 250 people.

“It creates a lot of jobs,” Barnes said. “Our longshoremen are very excited about this.”

Billy Swor, secretary of International Longshore & Warehouse Union Local 24, said in a Port news release that the vehicle shipment demonstrates how well local workers can take on diverse vessel loads.

“This is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate that longshoremen in the community of Grays Harbor are capable of handling this type of cargo,” Swor said.

Barnes said the Port would also see a large boost in revenue from the import fees and storage costs.

As shuttle buses ferried workers from the rows of cars back to the ship, Pasha looked on with praise. He noted that new vehicles can be difficult to move and that damage is a major concern.

“These guys are all clean and respectful,” Pasha said of the workers.

“They just do a tremendous job,” Barnes added.

Pasha said this first shipment was expected to turn into “several” more vessels during the next six months.

The Port has offered acres of property to store the vehicles as well as large warehouses for repair work and other needs.

Down below the ship, short convoys rolled into place. Barnes and Pasha squinted in the wind as they counted the rows, marking the progress.

The Pasha Group moved more than 2 million vehicles last year, mostly through facilities near San Diego and Baltimore.

If the group moves more of its processing facilities to the area, they could seek to add support operations including a carwash station, a body and repair shop and painting booths.

“There’s lots of other opportunities,” Pasha said. “The long-term plan is big.”