By Brian Sherman
Photo credit: South Carolina Ports Authority
The economic impact generated by the South Carolina Ports Authority is nearly as vast as the interminable oceans that serve as a conduit for the array of products that leave and enter the Palmetto State to and from destinations around the globe.
A study completed in 2015 by the Darla Moore School of Business at the University of South Carolina revealed the SCPA’s worth to the state: $53 billion in annual economic activity, 187,206 jobs and $912 million in tax revenue.
Those numbers are about to increase with the deepening of Charleston Harbor, the addition of an inland port in Dillon, S.C., and the construction of a new container terminal in North Charleston.
At a roundtable discussion held Jan. 23 in Mount Pleasant, Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome told state and federal officials and representatives of the shipping industry that the next step for the deepening project is for it to be included in President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget. The passage of the Water Infrastructure Improvement for the Nation Act in Dec. 2016 paved the way for federal funding.
“I’m optimistic that the Trump administration will be focused on harbors,” Newsome said. “It’s a federal harbor. The people of South Carolina shouldn’t pay the lion’s share. It’s a good project, and I’m excited about where we are.
“The port is a major strategic asset in South Carolina,” he added. “Having a good port is an asset to be treasured.”
The state of South Carolina set aside $300 million for the deepening project in 2012. Newsome said the entire cost of the project will be $509 million and that he hopes the federal government will provide $180 million over the next three years.
When work on the harbor is completed, probably in 2020, Charleston will have the deepest harbor on the East Coast and will be able to accommodate fully loaded container ships that come through the recently-expanded Panama Canal. Currently, these ships are able to dock only at high tide, according to Ports Authority External Affairs Coordinator Kelsi Childress.
U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham agreed that the port is vitally important to the South Carolina economy, pointing out that “this was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.” He credited the impending success of the project to the work of the Obama administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Newsome and his staff at the Ports Authority.
“In a divided world, we’ve been able to make the port of Charleston sacrosanct,” Graham stated. “It was the military and civilian world coming together. South Carolina has access to the world market because companies decided to locate here, and they decided to locate here because of the port.”
U.S. Rep. Mark Sanford, who represents the 1st Congressional District, called the deepening project “a celebration of how far we’ve come.”
“The harbor has been the lifeblood of the Charleston community since the 1600s. The port is central to the Charleston community,” Sanford said.
Newsome pointed out that a federal study authorized Charleston Harbor to be extended to a depth of 50 feet.
“I didn’t want to go to 50 feet and come back in two years with another project,” he explained. “So we bought the extra two feet.”
The Ports Authority is focusing on deepening the port, but it’s also working on several other projects aimed at making it easier and more profitable for companies to do business in South Carolina. The Hugh K. Leatherman Sr. Terminal is under construction at the old Navy base. When it is finished in 2020, at a cost of $770 million, it will give the Ports Authority three container terminals, joining Wando Welch in Mount Pleasant and the North Charleston Terminal, and increase its container capacity by 50 percent.
The Ports Authority operates three other terminals that don’t serve container vessels: Veterans and Columbus Street, as well as the Union Pier cruise facility, all in Charleston.
In addition, the SCPA is adding a second inland port in Dillon at a cost of $40 million. The facility, which is expected to accommodate 35,000 to 45,000 containers a year when it is completed in 2018, will speed up the distribution process and help take trucks off South Carolina’s interstates because much of the transportation between Dillon and the coast will be by rail. The same is true for Inland Port Greer, which opened in October 2013 and handled 103,639 rail lifts in 2016.
The Ports Authority also is spending $600 million to upgrade its IT systems and strengthen the dock at Wando Welch, its busiest terminal, improvements that are necessary to handle the larger vessels passing through the Panama Canal and stopping in Charleston. In addition, two 155-foot cranes were added to the mix at Wando, and two more are expected to be delivered by the end of this year. As part of the Ports Authority’s efforts to interact with the local community, students in grades three through five got to name the new additions. The winning entries were Cranebob Bluepants and Heavy Metal.
Childress visits local schools to talk about the Ports Authority, and local students also take field trips to its facilities to get a firsthand look at South Carolina’s shipping industry.
“We hope this sparks their interest and encourages them to apply for jobs somewhere in the industry,” Childress commented.
“We want to be good stewards and good partners,” she added. “We have operations in Charleston, Mount Pleasant, Greer, Dillon and North Charleston. We want to be involved in the community.”
The Ports Authority also provides financial support for local organizations through its Community Giving Program, which was established in 2013. In fiscal year 2017, the Ports Authority provided $85,000 in grants to 49 charitable organizations, including $5,000 each to Charleston Waterkeeper, Chucktown Squash Scholars and Team Backpack Journalists.
“The port’s mission extends well beyond our gates. As we grow in our role as an economic development engine for the state, so does our commitment to be a strong community partner and neighbor,” Newsome commented.