College of Charleston President Lobbies for Port


Benson lobbies for port support

March 22, 2008

By John McDermott
The Post and Courier

The leader of the College of Charleston has waded into the debate over the Port of Charleston, saying South Carolina seems to have lost sight of the vital connection between its waterfront and its economic prosperity.

The Lowcountry’s wealth has always been tied to its waterways, from the swashbuckling ocean trade of the 1700s to the billions of federal dollars that flowed to the Navy shipyard for most of the 20th century, said George Benson, who has been president of the college since early 2007.

But Benson sees a cause for alarm in 2008, now that the Port of Savannah has increased its shipping-volume lead over Charleston, which won’t open its new shipping terminal in North Charleston for several more years.

“There apparently is insufficient support for port growth, even within the region’s business community,” he said at a Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce conference Thursday. “That’s a problem.”

In a speech that touched an old nerve with many of the 700 local business leaders in the audience, Benson said he is particularly alarmed at how quickly the once-dominant Port of Charleston has lost ground to Savannah.

Benson said he wanted to bring a set of “fresh eyes” to a critical economic issue, one that has hung over the local waterfront for several years.

“To be in Charleston now and to be integrally involved with the community, I’m concerned,” he said Friday.

Benson is new to the city, but he’s been watching the flow and ebb of the Charleston waterfront for a decade. In 1998, when he was named dean of the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia, he began traveling to more than dozen cities a year throughout the Peach State to talk about the Georgia economy, including its port system.

“At first I showed how Savannah was lagging Charleston,” he said. “Later I described Savannah as lagging, but catching up. Eventually I was predicting that Savannah would overtake Charleston.”

Benson said he was “always puzzled as to why Charleston was slipping in the rankings.”

“We’d always looked up to the Port of Charleston,” he said. “Now that I’m here, I’m still puzzled.”

Charleston and Savannah are ranked by the number of 20-foot-long containers they handle each year. By that measure, Savannah sailed past the Holy City for the first time in 2002 and has never looked back.

In fact, the gap has widened significantly.

Last year Charleston saw its volume slide 11 percent to 1.75 million containers compared to 2006, according to the State Ports Authority. The Port of Savannah, meanwhile, moved a record 2.6 million boxes in 2007, up about 21 percent, the Georgia Ports Authority said.

The SPA has said its ability to keep pace and grow has been stymied by numerous delays and the resistance it has encountered over the past decade in trying to get a new container terminal approved.

In 2002 the agency abandoned its original plan to expand on Daniel Island amid a groundswell of community and political opposition. The SPA then turned its sights to the old Navy base in North Charleston, but it took about five years to obtain all the permits, meaning the first phase won’t open for business until about 2012.

The delays in Charleston’s expansion have made many shippers nervous about whether the SPA will have enough space, at least in short run, to handle all of their vessels and cargo. As a result, some have shifted container business to other ports, and Savannah has been one of the major beneficiaries.

Bernard Groseclose, the SPA’s chief executive, said “the self-destructive activities in South Carolina” have become fodder for jokes within Georgia’s state government. He described Benson’s pro-port remarks as “refreshing.”

Benson declined to point any fingers for the reversal of fortune between Charleston and Savannah, but he noted that Georgia invested aggressively in its port system amid all the infighting in South Carolina.

Lawmakers in Atlanta, for example, approved tax incentives aimed at luring large warehouse users to the state, while Savannah officials developed a large business park between the port and Interstate 95, where major retailers like Home Depot now store their imported merchandise.

“Georgia was aggressive and innovative,” Benson said.

As for South Carolina, he said business leaders and lawmakers should “never forget what got us here, our waterways, our port.”
In my opinion, Mr. Benson is correct. Ports are driving development across the nation, and will continue to do so into the future. Embrace the development potential of sites in proximity of ports and let the market do the rest. South Carolina is going to fall even further behind Georgia if the attitude doesn’t change.
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    1. rose says:

      Nice one!!!!
      keep continue…. Trucking Charleston