Debate on the location of an upper North Island port for the future is fruitless until the issue of where freight needs to be is thoroughly analysed, says Northport chairman Murray Jagger.
"We've intentionally stayed quiet through this whole political debate. For me to make a comment about the (Auckland Business Chamber's) Firth of Thames idea would be personal, and a distraction to what we are focused on and wouldn't add anything," he said.
"A number of key points have probably been lost in all the debate, (such as) what does a resilient upper North Island supply chain really look like and where does the freight that currently comes to all ports really need to be?
"Once we have a meaningful analysis of where the freight is going to be and (see) where the growth is going to be, (we can say) these are the ports that will handle that freight."
Northport and Ports of Auckland have been pitted against each other by public debate in NZ First's campaign to develop a major port in Northland, and reports on various port location scenarios. The debate is underpinned by a forecast that Auckland's CBD cargo operations are on borrowed time.
But Jagger said Northport's been quietly focusing for some time on how it can be part of a resilient upper North Island supply chain that supports the freight growth of Northland and north Auckland.
"We've seen Auckland creeping north incrementally - we get closer to it all the time.
"We see ourselves as a staged complementary process to Auckland, as opposed to taking off Auckland.
"With a port you've got to look out 50 years. Auckland will be constrained in 30 years so (Northport) would be complementary to actually assist Auckland (freight sector) to deliver.
"We need to get an understanding of where that freight needs to be.
"That's our focus and we need to be collaborative."
Northport, a natural deepwater gateway at Marsden Point, is jointly owned by listed companies Port of Tauranga and Marsden Maritime Holdings. Ports of Auckland is a 20 per cent shareholder in MMH, which is 53 per cent owned by the Northland Regional Council.
Jagger is also chairman of MMH.
"Our JV has been working on this for a while - but we have not been prepared to be part of a political discussion. It gets momentum and you get lost in it," he said.
He's not suggesting the collaborative philosophy makes Northport any less hungry for commercial growth for itself.
"We've been looking at what (freight) systems we need to be working in to primarily assist Northport's growth and also Marsden Maritime's growth. We've broken our landholding into ecosystems we will work within, but with a long-term focus on protecting a portion of that land for port growth in future."
The port has 180ha of greenfield land. Jagger said there was also around 700ha of land available in the Bream Bay district available for growth.
"We have a huge opportunity to be part of that upper North Island resilient supply chain, particularly in support of Northland and north Auckland. We have that opportunity because of growth capability in this area."
Jagger said the port's preparation for growth has included modelling how to handle freight systems - for example, imported vehicles - differently.
Northport wants to be an influential growth facilitator for Northland, Jagger said.
"We are seeing that with some of the tenancies which wanted to move out of Auckland and those that want to be around the port."
New tenants included direct importers, grain merchants and "a lot of manufacturing industry looking to relocate because of the cost of doing business in Auckland".
The avocado export sector offered one of the biggest growth opportunities for the port.
"We are generally a primary sector region so the commercial business growth opportunity here now is reasonably limited. But if you look at the opportunity as Auckland encroaches on Northland then there is the opportunity to make this supply chain more resilient.
"We can be complementary to Auckland. We don't need to take over the whole port but collectively we can be beneficial so that everyone benefits."
One opportunity that would turbo-charge Northport's growth would be development of marine services infrastructure in Whangarei, starting with a major shipyard and drydock.
The NZ Defence Force-owned drydock at Devonport is too small to service modern ships.
Northport was given around $1m for a feasibility study on developing a new facility there.
Northport concluded it could accommodate the project, however it didn't make the Government's "shovel-ready" infrastructure development list because it was going to cost more than $210m.
Northland is also a potential new home for the Devonport navy base.
NZDF has said it expects a business case for shifting the base before Christmas.