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Sales tax: Port revival moves ahead as referendum nears

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

A shallow-draft ship carrying steel billets for a manufacturer in Conway will arrive in the Port of Georgetown in about a month.

It will be the first new business at the port in a decade, and the announcement last week at the S.C. Maritime Museum in Georgetown rivaled that of a plant opening, swarming with elected officials and representatives from the business community.

Shipping at Georgetown has been limited because silt has made the channel as shallow as 19 feet in places. Regular maintenance that kept the channel through Winyah Bay at least 25 feet deep has been stopped because the port failed to meet minimum tonnage requirements as Georgetown Steel halted production and then resumed.

That Catch 22 — no dredging funds without tonnage and vice versa — has made dredging the channel the top spending priority of a referendum on the ballot Nov. 6 to add an additional penny to the local sales tax. The first $5.5 million would go to dredging the shipping channel and raising the port’s tonnage to a million tons a year, the minimum needed to qualify for federal funding. Plans call for a minimum depth of 27 feet.

Opponents of the additional 1-cent sales tax don’t argue against dredging for the port or its economic impact.

Charlie Luquire, chairman of Stop the Tax Hike Committee, says the county should pay for dredging from other sources rather than attach it to a list of nearly $40 million in capital improvement projects that include fire stations, libraries, parks, recreational facilities and roads.

“We could dredge the port by moving our priorities around,” Luquire said, “especially since the county is borrowing $26 million next year.”

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville, a Democrat, urged passage of the sales tax referendum during his remarks Friday welcoming Metglas as a port customer. Scoville, a former member of the State Ports Authority board, said Georgetown could gain as many as 4,000 new jobs if the channel is dredged. “We won’t have to hunt around so much for a little ship,” he said.

A manufacturer of metal glass alloys and components, Metglas will import 17,000 tons of cargo a year through Georgetown from Canada. Dodd Smith, president and chief operating officer of Metglass, said he wants the company’s other steel shipments from Brazil to be transferred from the Port of Charleston to Georgetown once the channel is deep enough for larger ships.

Even in its present state, the port’s business has increased in the past year from 277,000 tons to nearly 600,000, said Byron Miller, vice president of marketing for the Ports Authority.

Last week’s announcement was the first fruits of cooperation between the economic alliance organizations of Horry and Georgetown counties. Miller said potential at the port led CSX railroad to make $500,000 in improvements last year.

“There’s no doubt in my mind,” said state Sen. Yancey McGill, “this is a historic moment, a mega-opportunity for both counties with the S.C. Ports Authority as the prime economic engine. There’s a commitment to make a difference at this port.”

McGill said the state Senate and House of Representatives support dredging at Georgetown and have $33.5 million in funding available.

“There have been a few questions about the port here,” he said, “but today’s announcement by Metglas, with other potential customers, answers them.”

With more industrial customers, Georgetown’s port could expand its bulk cargo beyond aggregates, cement and biomass.

It could be huge.

If South Carolina can win the race to establish an off-shore wind farm, Georgetown’s port would potentially be transformed into a staging area for turbines and decks, supporting thousands of long-term, high-paying jobs.

Paul Gayes, director of the Coastal Carolina University’s Burroughs & Chapin Center for Marine and Wetland Studies, said the first state to establish a viable wind farm in the mid-Atlantic will reap the benefits.

“States are wrestling and elbowing each other,” Gayes said.

Testing of South Carolina’s offshore wind is being done from a Coast Guard platform off Georgetown.

The state’s geography gives it an advantage, too. The continental shelf slopes gradually, often remaining no more than 100 feet deep for miles out to sea, reducing installation costs and obstruction of scenic views from shore.

A Clemson University report prepared for the S.C. Energy Office shows that a 1,000-megawatt offshore wind farm constructed between 2016 and 2025 would create an average of more than 3,800 jobs per year throughout the 10-year construction period. It also would generate nearly $2 billion in wages and nearly $620 million in combined state and local government revenue, the study says. Survey respondents reported South Carolina wind-energy employees in management, professional, scientific and technical jobs made an average of $78,308 per year The state’s average annual salary for these types of jobs is $62,406.

Bill Crowther, director of the Georgetown County Economic Alliance, said a study of the port done by Coastal Carolina University in 2009 showed a $30 million economic impact with just the customers available.

“The future is very bright once the port is dredged to 27 feet,” Crowther said. “The State Ports Authority has customers lined up, business we are losing right now because of the depth of the port. Once it’s dredged there will be new customers and economic activity as well as new industry.”

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