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Economy: Port supporters told to think big

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Efforts of a task force to promote the dredging of the Port of Georgetown have created “a buzz on the street,” but given the chance to comment about the project only six people stepped to the microphone at a meeting this week. They all stressed the importance of the port to the local economy.

But state Sen. Yancey McGill said it’s a state and regional issue, and that thinking of it that way is what will help secure the $33.5 million the Army Corps of Engineers estimates it will cost to restore the port to its authorized depth of 27 feet.

“We’re not talking about 250 jobs,” the number contained in a local impact study prepared in 2009, McGill said. “This thing could relate to as many as 4,000 or 5,000 jobs.”

He said the North East Strategic Alliance, an economic development group that he chairs, is prepared to endorse the dredging project, which McGill believes can be paid for with state funds over three years.

“It’s all about the region. If we try to focus on just one county, it won’t work,” he said.

In some places, the channel is only about 10 feet at low tide. The reduced depth limits access by cargo ships, and the reduction in traffic in recent years curtailed federal funds for dredging.

James Sanderson, president of the local chapter of the United Steelworkers, said ArcelorMital mill in Georgetown uses iron imported from Trinidad through Wilmington, N.C., then loaded on trucks. The added shipping cost puts a strain on the mill’s finances, he said.

“The port is our lifeline for a more secure and stable economy,” he said.

Edwin Jayroe, head of the Georgetown Pilots Association, and Charles Brave, an official with the International Longshoremen’s Association, spoke of the decline in jobs at the port.

“There were hundreds of longshoremen,” Jayroe said, when he started work in the 1970s. “There is absolutely nothing now.”

Brave is a second-generation longshoreman who said he started work in Georgetown when he was 14. “We’ve got some families in this community that’s suffering because in the last two to three years I can count the ships on two hands that came into the Port of Georgetown,” he said.

And the loss of traffic to the port is felt beyond the docks, said Henry Middleton, a retired longshoreman. “We’ve got to look at the whole picture here. It ain’t about the longshoremen, it ain’t about the steel mill, it ain’t about the paper mill,” he said. “It’s about all of us.”

The speakers praised the work of the task force, which was formed in September by the legislative delegation. "It's unbelievable, the buzz on the street," Jayroe said.

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