A Tale of Two Ports: South Carolina fires on Port of Savannah


A Tale of Two Ports: South Carolina fires on Port of Savannah

The rivalry between Charleston and Savannah dates back centuries, and while it has often been carried on in a genteel manner, hostilities have recently broken out on the South Carolina side.

The most recent unpleasantness has South Carolina drawing its sword in order to shoot itself in the foot. It also has me mixing my metaphors. South Carolina seems to be so intent on “winning” the competition between Charleston and Savannah that they’re willing to sacrifice the port that is planned for land owned by the state of Georgia in Jasper County, South Carolina and endanger existing jobs at the Port of Savannah that are held by South Carolinians.

South Carolina has gone so far over the edge that they’re unwilling to accept any scenario in which both states win by expanding jobs and economic development through improvement of both ports and development of a joint project in Jasper County, SC. The South Carolina Ports Authority went so far as to suspend funding for the development of the Jasper port.

“We shouldn’t put in any money,” the board’s chairman Bill Sterns said after the meeting, “We have an obligation to the taxpayers of the state of South Carolina… to be good stewards of public money. This makes no business sense at all unless Georgia is fully committed.”

The attitude of a prominent South Carolina Republican blog toward Caterpillar’s decision to build a manufacturing plant in Georgia demonstrates that some in the Palmetto State won’t be satisfied until Georgia’s industries and port are burned to the ground.

South Carolina and North Carolina both competed with Georgia in an effort to land 1,400 Caterpillar jobs … and lost.

Anyway, what’s interesting about Caterpillar’s decision to locate 1,400 jobs in Athens, Georgia is that the company appears to have been motivated in part by Georgia’s port system – which was given a major competitive boost by S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley back in November.

Why did they finally choose a site in Athens, Georgia for the $200 million plant? Because of its proximity to the Port of Savannah, which is undergoing a taxpayer-funded expansion that was endorsed last year by Haley’s appointees to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.Up to forty percent of the small tractors and mini-excavators that Caterpillar will be manufacturing at its Athens facility will be shipped overseas – meaning that the company needed an export friendly location.

But South Carolina doesn’t have to have lost everything in Caterpillar’s decision. According to the Journal of Commerce:

The Athens site was selected from among dozens of locations considered due to its proximity to major ports, a strong regional base of potential suppliers, a positive and pro-active business climate and a good pool of potential employees with manufacturing experience,” said BCP vice president Mary Bell.

The facility site is close to two major Interstate roads and 222 miles from Savannah and 213 miles from Charleston, S.C. Caterpillar’s existing plants in Georgia use the Georgia ports of Savannah and Brunswick.

The Port of Charleston can and should compete for business from Caterpillar’s new plant, rather than whining about losing the plant itself.

The South Carolina legislature has now turned its sights on its own government, passing legislation that purports to overturn a decision by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control to allow dredging the Savannah River to improve access to the Port of Savannah for new, deeper-draft Post Panamax container ships.

After SC Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the bill, the legislature overrode the veto. In overturning the veto, one house member said,

S.C. Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, one of the authors of the port legislation [said,] “Of course, I will vote to override this veto. Beyond that, I will fight this governor and her political cronies tooth and nail to make sure their dream of a Savannah Port which trumps the Port of Charleston never becomes a reality.” [Emphasis added.]

So now we have the SC legislature and Governor arrayed in a circular firing squad with Savannah the ostensible target. South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson is taking sides with the legislature and Savannah River Maritime Commission against the Governor and DHEC.

Environmental groups in SC have joined in the fray, taking the SC DHEC to the state’s Supreme Court seeking to overturn the DHEC permit on a pretext environmental grounds. A statement by one of the groups indicates that the real target is Georgia, not water quality:

“DHEC had no authority to cut a backroom deal with Georgia and issue a permit for this destructive, wasteful project because the South Carolina legislature gave authority over this matter to the Savannah River Maritime Commission in 2007,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney at the law center.

Unfortunately, South Carolina’s suicide mission to destroy the Port of Savannah will harm more than just Georgia’s port. It has already endangered the development of the shared Jasper County port, and threats to Savannah also threaten South Carolina jobs that are based in, or supported by Savannah.

The Selig Center for Economic Growth found that the Port of Savannah provides SC with:

• $4.3 billion in sales (1.3 % of South Carolina’s total sales);
• $1.5 billion in state GDP (1 % of South Carolina’s total GDP);
• $959 million in income (0.7 % of South Carolina’s total personal income);
• 19,704 full- and part-time jobs (1.1 % of South Carolina’s total employment);
• $190 million in federal taxes;
• $84 million in state taxes;
• $63 million in local taxes.

The Selig Center found that more than 850 companies in South Carolina used the Savannah port for their import cargo movement. More than 300 S.C. companies used it for exports. In the meantime, an estimated 40 percent of the roughly 2,000 unionized longshoremen who work at the Savannah port live in South Carolina.

By trying to stop Savannah’s harbor deepening, which the S.C. State Ports Authority and other organizations on the S.C. side of the river are doing, South Carolinians are hurting fellow South Carolinians. That’s ludicrous. Studies suggest there’s plenty of future shipping business for Charleston’s port, as well as Savannah’s port and the proposed port in Jasper County. It’s time to cooperate. Not compete.

We must recognize that Savannah and Charleston aren’t the only east coast ports seeking to expand and a destructive interstate rivalry may give another state the upper hand over both. A draft study by the state of North Carolina makes clear that they’re looking to developing additional port capacity, and Jacksonville is also interested in Post Panamax shipping and the Port of Miami is moving forward as well.

Whether it’s SC’s in-state politics or a decades-long obsession with beating Savannah that set off this round of internecine conflict, it is clear that unless SC politicians get their meds adjusted, both states stand to lose.

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