DIEPPE – The proponents of an inland port project in New Brunswick have scaled back their ambitions.

Originally dubbed the Canada East Inland Port, the concept involved building a 2,000-acre distribution centre for containers shipped from a seaport by rail or road.

At the centre, cargo would have been sorted, repackaged and sent on by road, rail or air.

The inland port would have dovetailed with growth of container traffic from Asia at the port of Halifax.

Rob Robichaud, chief executive officer of the Greater Moncton Airport Authority, said a lack of enthusiasm for the project from trucking and rail firms was one of the major reasons the inland port idea has been retooled.

The group behind the inland port is now focusing its efforts on building the Moncton airport up as an air cargo hub and has renamed itself the Canada East Air Cargo Gateway group.

“You have to have other partners who want to play in the pool with you,” said Robichaud.

“It became apparent very quickly that it didn’t make sense for rail to come up with containers here when they make their money on longer hauls into Montreal.”

Trucking companies were also more interested in hauling goods from Halifax to more distant destinations than Moncton.

“It really didn’t fly all that well with private sector and it certainly didn’t fly well with the government at the time.”

While the lack of interest stymied the inland port concept, the members of the group were determined to find ways to take advantage of Moncton’s central location, its wealth of transportation and warehousing companies and its logistics expertise to capture more cargo.

Robichaud’s office in the airport’s modern terminal overlooks the tarmac.

Outside, a small passenger jet’s engines began to whine as the plane prepared to leave the terminal.

Cargo, said Robichaud, is the Moncton airport’s major growth opportunity.

The airport already handles 25,000 tonnes of air cargo each year, just slightly behind Halifax’s 27,000. St. John’s, the third largest air-cargo destination in Atlantic Canada, handles a meagre 3,000 tonnes.

The air cargo gateway strategy aims to find niche cargoes that are being handled outside of the region and redirect them through the Moncton airport.

Seafood, he said, is a significant opportunity.

“Fifty per cent of Canada’s seafood exports come from this region and they’re going into places like Brussels, other European markets and so on,” said Robichaud.

“Instead of having our goods trucked all the way down to Boston or New York or Chicago and causing extra time on a fresh seafood product, why don’t we try and get an airline in here and ship those products directly out of Atlantic Canada.”

The airport is spending more than $60,000 to study the potential of increasing its international air cargo business.

Landing a Boeing-757 size plane once a week could create 37 direct and indirect jobs in the greater Moncton area, said Robichaud, in addition to generating more than $9 million a year in economic benefits.

Once the airport secures an initial international air cargo flight, other airlines will look to set up shop in Moncton, he said.

“Airlines are very similar to the Wendy’s and McDonald’s (fast food chain) relationship,” he said. “Wendy’s puts a restaurant on this street corner and McDonald’s say’s ‘there’s got to be something going on there so we’ll put on across the street and see what happens.'””

John Thompson, chief executive officer of Enterprise Greater Moncton, said the Moncton air cargo hub idea could help firms save on shipping costs.

Moncton can offer savings when it comes to landing fees, handling fees and cost of fuel, he said.

“There’s a very strong business case to be made.”

Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president of the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, which has done extensive research on the Atlantic Gateway, said Moncton’s inland port concept was amongst several similar proposals in Nova Scotia.

“Everybody wants to be an inland port,” he said. “All of the inland port proposals, whether you’re talking about the one that’s sitting here in Halifax at the Bedford quarry or if you’re talking about Truro or Dieppe, all of those depend on one thing – a sufficient amount of cargo.”

But that swell of increased container cargo has yet to manifest itself and the inland port ideas should be shelved for now, he said.

“They can put them on the shelf and when the cargo volumes go up to the point then they can pull them off with little or no impact on the potential to move forward.”