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Port of Georgetown: Dredging task force may shift focus to interstate link
By Jason Lesley
With most of the money needed to dredge the port of Georgetown secured, promised or on the November ballot as a referendum, some members of the Georgetown County Port Task Force began looking ahead Wednesday to the next job: widening Highway 521 to four lanes all the way to Interstate 95.
“We are going to be successful,” said Lt. Gov. Yancey McGill, a member of the task force. “We’ve already got $16 million set up.”
But chairman Tim Tilley turned task force members’ attention back to the port. “That’s our priority,” he said. “We’ll bring it back up once we have reached a point where this task is complete and will make it happen.”
McGill said securing $18.5 million from the state over the next five years to dredge Georgetown harbor was among the toughest jobs he tackled in his 26 years as a legislator, and it was Georgetown County’s local commitment that made the difference. Georgetown County Council passed an ordinance Tuesday calling for a referendum on an additional 1-cent sales tax for four years that will raise $6 million for port dredging and $22 million for other projects.
McGill said he and Sen. Ray Cleary met with state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and were told that if Georgetown County came up with some type of match he would persuade the committee members to back the dredging. The funds will be held in a separate account for the Georgetown dredging and even the interest it earns will remain there, he said.
“The vote in Georgetown County is very important,” McGill said. “If it had not been for Georgetown County’s personal commitment, along with all the municipalities, this would not have happened. Now it is finally Georgetown County’s turn, the state of South Carolina’s turn, and our federal folks are going to make sure we get our share of the money.”
McGill said the Corps of Engineers said it must know where the money is coming from in order to proceed with the dredging project. “Right now,” McGill said, “our very own Congressional delegation members are working diligently towards helping us put together the funding.” He said the funds should be approved by year’s end and called for a “celebration at the water” when the check arrives.
McGill pointed out County Council Member Bob Anderson, whose term will end in January as a key member of the community that pushed the dredging project forward. “You will go down in the history books,” McGill told him, “for changing the quality of life in Georgetown County forever.”
Another key victory for the dredging process, McGill said, was the endorsement of the nine-county North East Strategic Alliance to dredge the channel to 27 feet. “That went a long way with members of the Finance Committee,” McGill said.
The Georgetown County process, McGill said, caught the attention of supporters of the Charleston port dredging task force. “In some ways,” he said, “because of the process that we’ve gone through, Charleston has been enlightened. They gained advantages off Georgetown County’s process. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. Dredging the Georgetown port will change the lives of people in Georgetown County forever. It means big commerce and big tourism opportunities and the growth of industry will ease the burden of the taxpayers in the county. That’s the end result of what’s going on here.”
Cleary said he heard “no” more times than he heard “yes” in Columbia. “I don’t think we’d be there without Sen. McGill,” he said. “He carried the ball. We’ve got the saddle on McGill for 521 once the port gets done.”
Cleary recommended the task force hire a public relations firm to promote passage of the sales tax referendum in November. He said that was part of the success in a Coast RTA referendum two years ago in Horry County. “We’d be dropping the ball if we don’t consider it,” he said.
Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway said county officials will speak to civic and church groups about the referendum and where the money will be used.