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Two plans for the port: Tourism and cargo

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Dredging at the port of Georgetown is key to lowering the unemployment rate in Georgetown County and will remain a top priority of the county’s Economic Development Commission.

“We don’t know what business opportunities we’ve missed because we don’t have the capability to unload [more] ships there,” said Dan Scheffing, the commission chairman. It’s something the group has worked hard to address.

The port can’t accommodate large cargo ships, because the shipping channel through Winyah Bay isn’t deep enough. Over the last decade, cargo decreased from over 1.8 million tons to 265,000 tons. Because federal funds for dredging are based on port traffic, Georgetown has been in a downward spiral.

The county’s unemployment rate hit 14.9 percent in December, and “our sole focal point is bringing that rate down,” said Wayne Gregory, the director of economic development.

Dredging the shipping channel will help accomplish that by providing the county with a competitive advantage as it works to recruit companies that rely on bulk and break-bulk cargo, he said.

There are several companies already considering the port. Gregory said those firms could mean an extra 300 million tons of cargo a year for the port, helping generate more than 250 jobs for the local economy, $7.6 million in new annual household income and a total local economic impact of $27 million.

With dredging, he said, he believes the port will again be able to play an important role in boosting regional economic development efforts and bringing new jobs and income into the county.

The port of Georgetown exports salt, cement, limestone, wire aluminum and forest products.

The shipping channel needs to be about 27 feet deep, according to Joe Bryant, the port’s vice president of terminal development. In some areas, the channel is only about 22 feet deep, the result of a shortage of federal funding for maintenance of the port that recurred over several years, he said.

Work is under way to obtain the funds needed for dredging anto to attract new business. Just over $1 million in federal funds has been approved to complete the first phase of dredging, but about $7 million more is needed.

A new report on ways to increase tourism in the region suggests redevelopment of the Arcelor Mittal steel mill and a portion of the State Ports Authority terminal in Georgetown to include two hotels, a terminal for small and medium-sized ships and other features that would draw visitors.

The steel mill shut down last summer, because of deteriorating market conditions, and is expected to remain closed at least through 2011.

Gregory complimented the report, but said it doesn’t affect plans for dredging and the need for growth at the port.

“It’s a good report and it’s nice to have ideas and input, but it also has to be balanced with reality, and the reality of the situation is that we don’t know when the steel mill will reopen, but it will reopen and that will immediately create jobs,” Gregory said.

Development of hotels at the steel mill site would be contingent on the mill remaining closed, he added. And even if that were the case, “with the way the economy has gone and with the high vacancy rates at hotels, a lot of them are cutting back and closing right now.”

However, the suggestions in the report could be useful for the county 20 or 30 years from now, Gregory said.

County Administrator Sel Hemingway agreed.

Though the port is an essential part of the county’s efforts to bring business to the area and create jobs, “if there ever comes a time when it’s determined for whatever reason that Georgetown can’t be competitive as a traditional shipping center [tourism development] would certainly be the alternative.”

He doesn’t see the two coexisting.

“It would be very difficult for that environment to exist and have a viable port as we know it,” Hemingway said.

Even tourism development would require some dredging of the shipping channel, said Dan Stacy, who chairs the county’s nonprofit Alliance for Economic Development.

The marina project would rely on boats that cruise the Intracoastal Waterway. The shipping channel would have to be maintained for cruise ships.

The alliance commissioned an economic impact study for the port that will be presented this week.

“You can’t have a port without waterfront property. Part of the waterfront has to be industrial,” Stacy said.

But he believes it makes sense to add a tourism component to the port, regardless of the fate of the steel mill.

“I don’t see them as being mutually exclusive. I don’t see why they would have to be,” Stacy said.

The port will be among the topics at an economic development forum Friday at the Pawleys Plantation. It starts at 10:30 a.m. and is open to the public.

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