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Economic development: Different views but same goals for port

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The history of the Port of Georgetown as Byron Miller tells it is similar to the version heard by the task force looking at ways to restore cargo traffic to the facility. But there is one important difference.

Along with the story of boom times carrying rice, lumber and paper, Miller, the marketing director for the S.C. State Ports Authority, notes the letters from Colonial Era captains talking about the sand bar that blocked the entrance and the shallow water in the lower part of Winyah Bay. He cites the Corps of Engineers’ report from 1852, nearly 100 years before the corps dredged a channel, saying the natural depth for the port was a little over 11 feet.

And he talks about how maintenance dredging began 18 months after the channel was dredged to 27 feet in 1950, and eventually was called for twice a year.

“It’s a constrained harbor,” Miller said.

But the ports authority and consultants working on a port marketing plan for Georgetown County agree that there is a future for the facility as a specialty port, whether or not local leaders are able to find a source for the $33.5 million the corps says it will cost to restore the port to its 27-foot depth.

As Miller spoke with the Senior Scholars group at the Georgetown Library this week, he pointed out that there was a barge tied up at the dock along the Sampit River. Barge traffic is what the ports authority believes will raise traffic at Georgetown from $276,570 tons moved in the 2011 fiscal year to 600,000 tons projected for 2012.

The current depth is fine for barges, which carry a couple of thousand tons of cargo, Miller said. The ports authority is trying to convince ArcelorMittal to ship its raw materials and products through Charleston rather than Wilmington, N.C., and move them by barge to its steel mill in Georgetown.

The steel mill accounted for most of the cargo handled in Georgetown at its peak in 2003. An 18-month closure of the mill coincided with the port’s lowest recorded volume, 124,636 tons in 2009-10.

Miller said the state is committed to selling shippers on the Port of Georgetown. Although the task force was told there is a dedicated sales rep for the port, Miller said all his staff sell Georgetown.

David Brandes, a principal in Genesis Consulting, said his port marketing study for the county looks at inland ports for comparisons. Much of their traffic is by barge.

The consultants are drawing up a list of likely customers who could be served today, and say there could be a future for the port in biomass and offshore gas exploration.

For the ports authority, “it’s a two-pronged approach,” Miller said, looking at what the port can handle today and what it can handle if it is dredged.

“We intend to bring more business back to Georgetown,” he said.

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