The cold storage market in Wilmington, North Carolina, is hot, thanks in part to its proximity to America’s most proficient port.

The Port of Wilmington is ranked as the most productive in North America, according to the latest Container Port Performance Index (CPPI), a technical report produced by the World Bank and S&P Global Market Intelligence that ranks the world’s ports on efficiency.

Moving over 320,000 TEUs annually, the city's port has seen about 264% growth in its refrigerated import and export volumes since fiscal 2016. Over 30,000 TEUs of refrigerated cargo moved through the port in fiscal 2023, according to figures provided by NC Ports.

“North Carolina is one of the nation’s fastest growing states, meaning more consumers requiring year-round access to fruits, vegetables and proteins. NC Ports is strategically positioned to meet this demand while supporting the continued growth in the export market for our region’s pork, poultry, fruits, vegetables and specialty crops. North Carolina is the number one producer of sweet potatoes in the United States and is home to some of the largest producers of pork and poultry,” said Brian E. Clark, executive director, North Carolina State Ports Authority. “North Carolina Ports has become a critical gateway for the movement of refrigerated cargoes, and our team continues to make investments in this important growth segment.”

Located on the East Coast, within 700 miles of more than 70% of the U.S. industrial base, Wilmington is the closest port to major points on the Interstate 95 corridor, including Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh-Durham.

North Carolina Ports has invested over $250 million in infrastructure improvement, including a new container gate complex, yard expansion, harbor deepening and berth expansion. They have installed over 1,500 additional refrigerated plugs and, along with CSX, enhanced the inland distribution network from the port by installing a new intermodal rail facility with a capacity of over 50,000 movements annually.

“Wilmington is taking off,” said Eric Casey, executive vice president of ports at Cold Summit Development. “The port is in a great position as a frontrunner on the East Coast.”

Cold Summit is pre-leasing space at its new 298,730-square-foot facility, expected to open in fall 2024, on a 20-acre site owned by the port authority. A 55-foot tall distribution center makes up the bulk of the facility, which will be able to hold 38,500 pallets.

Cold Summit NC Port
At nearly 300,000 square feet, the Wilmington location will be EnergyStar certified and designed with an uninterrupted roof allowing for the integration of solar power. Image Courtesy of Cold Summit Development.

“In general, Southeast port cities in the U.S. have benefited from trade shifts and port back-ups that occurred during and post COVID,” said Jason Fincher, vice president of Strategy and Logistics at Cold Summit Development. “Cold storage capacity is an essential enabler to attract and retain the largest class of container ships. The investment and commitment of the state and the port into developing out the port of Wilmington has made it an obvious spot to increase the cold storage inventory.”

Cold Summit’s multi-suite design can accommodate tenants as small as 52,000 square feet, all the way up to a full-scale user. The temperature range available is from -20 degrees Fahrenheit to ambient, and each suite is sub-divisible in case smaller temperature zones are required. The facility can also support value added services as diverse as blast freezing to ripening rooms upon request.

A second phase will offered as a build-to-suit.

“It is a slightly smaller scale than Phase 1, at approximately 160,000 square feet but has so many options for its use that we would like the end user to determine the final building type,” Fincher said. “Phase 2 has rail service and would make an excellent rail-container cross-dock facility and it is also an excellent location for blast freezing.”

There is nearly 2 million square feet of planned cold storage warehouse space in the Wilmington area, according to Evans General Contractors, including a project they built for RL Cold.

RL Cold, a subsidiary of real estate development firm RealtyLink, earlier this yearopened a $100 million refrigerated warehouse at the Pender Commerce Park to accommodate the state’s food manufacturers and processors, particularly protein producers who have traditionally sent their products to be exported at larger East Coast ports. The site includes 30,000 pallet positions

Also currently under construction is a multi-phase speculative development by CIL Capital at the city’s ILM Business Park, located next to the Wilmington International Airport. Plans include 750,000 square feet of cold storage space for the life sciences industry with freezer space for sensitive pharmaceutical products.

“There are meaningful investments being made in cold chain infrastructure not only inside our gates, but throughout our region. These investments will lead to the continued growth of refrigerated volumes through the Port of Wilmington and attract additional business opportunities to the state of North Carolina, spurring economic growth and development,” Clark said. “Our agriculture community has the knowledge and passion to handle the anticipated increase in import produce, which requires additional near-port solutions and value-added services such as packing, ripening, labeling, marketing, distribution and more.”