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Economic development: Port task force gets assurance on funding

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

The task force created to find money to dredge the Port of Georgetown and find ways to increase cargo has heard a series of speakers talk about the lack of funds for the project. But this week members heard in a closed-door session from state Sen. Yancey McGill where he thinks the money will come from.

McGill said the executive session of the task force, created by the county’s legislative delegation, met the requirements of the state Freedom of Information Act because the group’s work will result in a contract. “It’s a legally binding contract that’s going to be signed,” he said.

But he also said he doesn’t want officials in other parts of the state to know how he thinks $33.5 million can be found to restore the channel and harbor to its authorized depth of 27 feet. Until the port is dredged, its traffic will continue to be limited.

The task force met Wednesday for the second time in as many weeks, gathering information. Tim Tilley, who chairs the group, hopes it can use the data to make a case for funding.

The current channel was created by the Army Corps of Engineers, but it hasn’t been dredged since 2005 because of falling cargo volume. It fell under a million tons in 2006 and fell off the list of projects eligible for federal harbor maintenance funds. Cargo volume hit a low of 124,000 tons last year.

Louis Poggi, a vice president of Ssa Cooper, a stevedore firm, suggested the task force try to get a private operator to lease the port from the State Ports Authority. That would provide private funds for dredging and give a private firm a financial incentive to bring in new customers, he said.

“These people have ready money,” Poggi said.

Tilley said he is losing faith in the ports authority, telling the group it’s hard to get the agency to return phone calls. “There’s a perceived issue that the ports authority doesn’t care about Georgetown,” he said.

Jim Jerow, a task force member, suggested looking at other ways of paying for the dredging, such as a bond issue.

McGill has told the task force he is optimistic that state funds can be found. The ports authority president, Jim Newsome, has proposed a three-year funding plan with $5.5 million the first year and $14 million in the next two years. There is too much silt in the port to be dredged in a single year without additional sites to store the spoils.

“If we’re prepared and we’re organized, the money’s going to come to the table,” McGill said.

He urged the group to focus on finding business for the port once it’s dredged because that will allow it to get federal funds for ongoing maintenance.

A consulting firm working on an economic development plan for Georgetown County is also at work on a marketing plan for the port. David Brandes, a principal in the Genesis Group, told the task force he is looking at similar ports around the country for ideas that Georgetown can adapt.

Break-bulk cargo, material that can’t be shipped in a container, makes up about 12 percent of the U.S. market, he said. “There will always be a break-bulk need,” he said.

Jerry Rovner, a retired Navy captain who has worked for the regional AmeriPort in Philadelphia, said the task force needs to include people from firms that will use the port. “They have to understand that you’re buying into their needs,” he said. “We’ve got to get a commitment from them.”

State Sen. Ray Cleary said when he and other local officials talked with Sen. Hugh Leatherman, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, earlier this year he had letters from five or six firms that were interested in using the port. It’s important to convince the finance committee that the port traffic can be increased if the task force hopes to get state funds, he said.

Neither Cleary nor McGill think it’s likely the state will lease the port because of opposition that arose when a similar plan was proposed in Jasper County. And McGill said Leatherman, a Florence County Republican, doesn’t want the state to lose control over what is brought into its ports.

“My mind does not lean toward leasing,” McGill said.

“We’ve tried for years and years to get this dredged and there’s just no money,” Poggi said.

“I’m telling you now, never believe there’s no money,” McGill said.

He said he could say more about that in an executive session.

The task force will meet Oct. 17 with staff from the Corps of Engineers and the ports authority.

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