Frank Colonna is bullish on the Port of Long Beach.
Colonna took the gavel Monday, Aug. 10, as the next president of the Long Beach Harbor Commission, taking over for Bonnie Lowenthal (who remains on the commission). He said he is seeing a surge in business at the port, which is ranked the second largest in the country, just behind its neighbor, the Port of Los Angeles.
"We're seeing a surge we didn't really expect," Colonna said. "Things are opening up; there is more traffic in the streets. It's a lot different than it was when the (coronavirus) pandemic began, and that's reflecting on our business."
Colonna has served on Long Beach boards, councils and commissions for more than 30 years. A Realtor by trade, he was president of the Belmont Shore Business Association in the early 1990s, leading the charge to widen sidewalks on the 14-block strip of commercial Belmont Shore. He has served on regional boards, including the Alameda Corridor Authority and the San Gabriel and Lower LA Rivers and Mountains Conservancy.
He served two terms on the Long Beach City Council, 1998-2006, and made runs at being the city's mayor. Colonna was appointed to what is widely believed to be the city's most powerful commission in July 2017 by Mayor Robert Garcia — who got his start in politics as a Colonna aide when Colonna was on the City Council.
Colonna said the port is seeing changes in the types of cargo it handles, particularly in exports. About 27% of exports are bulk haulers — grain and other commodities — instead of containers now. Imports continue to be impacted by the volatile relations with China, he added.
"We're in an election year, and the geopolitical situation is reflecting that," Colonna said. "We're seeing more imports from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand; it's a work in progress… As we move toward the holiday season, people are more aware of what they need to do to stay healthy, and they are getting out. Much of our consumer goods are imported, and that shows."
While acknowledging that the Harbor Department is part of the city government, Colonna argues that the Port of Long Beach is more business than service provider. He pointed to the millions of dollars the port transfers to both the city's general fund and the Tidelands operations, and noted that no taxpayer money goes to the port.
"We need to be careful when we talk about our workforce," Colonna said, alluding to potential furloughs facing most city employees in the next year as the administration tries to balance the city's budget. "It's something we have to discuss with the mayor. This is just me — we haven't talked as a commission — but personally I would much rather see us working at full speed."
Long Beach will continue to solidify its reputation as a leading "green port," improving water and air quality, Colonna said. But that should not come at the expense of generating jobs through the trade industry, he added.
"In a city of 500,000 or so, we have the first or second biggest port in the nation," Colonna said. "We're very fortunate to have it. It is a major economic engine. A majority of people want it here, while a small minority group wants to shackle us.
"The fact is, we're about as big as we can be. We need to increase efficiencies now… The new bridge is an example. The Gerald Desmond is functionally obsolete. We need to maximize the space we have."
Colonna said one of the things he'd like to do in his year as president is increase awareness of what the port does, particularly with small business owners, so they can benefit. Open houses could resume to make that happen, he said.
"We've got three relatively new commissioners," Colonna said, referring to Steven Neal, Bobby Olvera Jr. and Sharon Weissman. "We're all working together to make the port the best it can be. I'm looking forward to the year."