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Area officials laud law enabling Savannah port expansion
Legislation expected to have big economic impact
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President Barack Obama’s signing of legislation that authorizes the deepening of the Port of Savannah has caused quite a buzz this week, with government and business officials expecting the move will have quite an economic impact statewide.

“That’s the No. 1 most important economic development project in the state,” Georgia Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Clark said Thursday to a group in Gainesville.

“The folks in Savannah can start digging,” he said. “You talk about an impact on the economy — that’s a big, big deal for us.”

And Gov. Nathan Deal has said the project “is vitally important for economic development and job creation not only in the Southeast, but nationally as well. In fact, our nation will begin to receive a 5-to-1 return on investment once this is completed.”

The Water Resources Reform and Development Act of 2014 authorizes $706 million for the long-awaited dredging project, which includes both the state and federal portions.

Jeff Humphreys, director of UGA’s Selig Center for Economic Growth, is taking more of a wait-and-see approach about the project’s economic effects.

“We won’t really know (the impacts) until after the port has been operating for awhile, in terms of being able to quantify it,” he said.

But the project certainly will help keep the port competitive when the Panama Canal expansion is finished.

“The Port of Savannah has the shallowest depth of any major port on the East Coast ... but that hasn’t really mattered because it was (always) deeper than the Panama Canal,” Humphreys said.

So, the Panama Canal expansion “was not just about larger economic impact,” he said. “It was about retaining economic impacts that we already enjoy.”

The good news is the Panama Canal project is behind schedule.

“That gives us a little more time to catch up,” Humphreys said. “We have enough time to deepen the (port) before it becomes a critical issue.”

As far as progress goes, state officials must now form an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine how costs of the anticipated $706 million project will be split with the federal government, Georgia Ports Authority officials said Tuesday.

In a joint statement, Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Marietta, and Saxby Chambliss, R-Moultrie, said port expansion is crucial for the region and will generate billions in revenue. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Savannah, said he urges the Army Corps of Engineers to sign the agreement and begin construction immediately.

The expansion has been talked about for years, with Humphreys releasing an April 2012 study on the economic impact of Georgia’s deepwater ports in Savannah and Brunswick.

The total economic impact on Georgia’s economy at that time was $66.9 billion, or 9.5 percent of Georgia’s output in fiscal 2011-12.

Nearly 5,600 part- and full-time workers in Hall County benefited from the ports, the study shows.

In 2012, the Georgia Mountains Region, a 13-county area in Northeast Georgia, imported an estimated $115.9 million worth of goods through the ports of Savannah and Brunswick and exported another $71.5 million.

Hall County businesses import $69.7 million and export $33.2 million in products that include auto parts, furniture, poultry, tractors and miscellaneous plastic and metal items.

“Every county in Georgia has an impact from the ports in Savannah and Brunswick,” Clark said, after his speech at the Chattahoochee Country Club. The expansion “lets us continue to be the second-busiest port on the East Coast.” 

Savannah also is the second-busiest port in the country for exports, he said.

“We send a lot of stuff out, and if we don’t have that port deepened, we’re not going to get those ships and that same volume of product out there.”

Tim Evans, the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s vice president of economic development, said imports “are every bit as important” as exports.

“A lot of our consumer goods come in through the Port of Savannah and many of our manufacturers are importing parts and components that go into a finished product,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.