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Economy: Fate of port dredging project in doubt

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Two years after voters approved a 1-cent sales tax for capital improvement projects, the centerpiece of the initiative is dead in the water, according to the Georgetown County administrator. But U.S. 7th District Rep. Tom Rice says it’s too early to give up on the plan to dredge the Port of Georgetown.

The county’s $28 million capital sales tax plan included $6 million to help dredge the channel through Winyah Bay. “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Administrator Sel Hemingway said this week.

The county’s plan was based on an estimate from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that it would cost $33.5 million to dredge the port. “The Corps of Engineers was at every meeting we had for four years. We met as a task force and the Corps of Engineers was at the table, and not one time in that four years did they tell us that we needed to revisit the numbers,” he said.

A month after the sales tax referendum, the Corps revised the cost to $67 million.

“There’s no way, through either state or federal funding, that we could bridge that gap,” Hemingway said.

“I don’t know if we can close the gap, but the gap’s going to get narrower,” Rice said. “The Corps of Engineers’ core figures were that far off.” What caused the increase in the Corps estimate was the cost of disposing of the dredge spoils, he said.

Rice helped get $2.5 million in the budget for the Corps’ Charleston District to repair upland spoils disposal sites and conduct tests to determine whether the spoils are eligible for ocean disposal. “You can’t put sediment in the ocean if there’s bad stuff in there,” he said.

The Corps is finishing those tests, Rice said.

The county also based its plan on projections that dredging the channel to a depth of 27 feet would increase traffic at the port to over 1 million tons a year, enough to qualify for ongoing federal funds for maintenance dredging. “The steel mill played a role in that,” Hemingway said. ArcelorMittal closed its Georgetown mill in 2015.

Rice, who was campaigning in Pawleys Island, agreed it will be hard to find the cargo to make up for the 500,000 tons the steel mill was expected to generate.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the Waccamaw Neck Council of Property Owners Associations, Hemingway said the state law that enabled the capital sales tax provides for a way to spend money collected in excess of the capital plan. It’s less clear about what happens if a project on the sales tax list that voters approved can’t be started. “If that money that’s collected is deemed excess revenue,” Hemingway said, “the governing body, which would be County Council, would have to convene and they would have to identify a project or projects for which that money could be spent.”

The county has already started looking at its options. Since the port was included as an economic development initiative, he believes the money should fund something that furthers that goal.

“I don’t think they voted on the sales tax for the dredging component because they inherently like to see mud taken out of the water and piled up to dry,” Hemingway said. “That was going to be an economic development stimulus that would create job opportunities, it would create capital investment, primarily for the western part of the county that would raise the tax base in that part of the county and [give] some relief of the tax burden here on the Neck.”

Funding for Horry-Georgetown Technical College’s Advanced Manufacturing Center on its Georgetown campus would be one project that meets that goal. Another would be funding infrastructure at a site to attract new industry.

The county has completed other elements included in the plan that will be funded through the sales tax, which will expire after four years without another referendum. Roads have been repaved around the county, and fire stations have been built in rural areas. Next month, a $10 million project to dredge the main channel in Murrells Inlet will begin with sand being placed on the beach at Garden City.

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