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Northeast Ga. industries would benefit from a deeper Savannah harbor, but obstacles remain
Project faces opposition and funding gap
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An Eskimo Cold Storage employee moves pallets of frozen products Thursday through a freezer on Athens Highway. The Gainesville business supports deepening the Savannah harbor to allow bigger vessels, which could mean more business. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

Six feet can make a big difference, even with the thousands of miles associated with the world of international trade.

That's the message state officials and Georgia businesses are telling when it comes to the proposed 6-foot deepening of the Savannah River as part of an expansion of the Port of Savannah.

Gov. Nathan Deal has made expanding the Savannah harbor a top priority for improving Georgia's economy.

The state has committed $180 million to the project.

But how much does that 6 feet really mean to the economy and residents of Northeast Georgia sitting hundreds of miles from the coast?

Quite a bit, actually, local political and business leaders say.

The Georgia Mountains Region, a 13-county area in Northeast Georgia, imports an estimated $115.9 million worth of goods through the ports of Savannah and Brunswick and exports 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.

"With our agricultural and manufacturing communities, the Port of Savannah is very important to our local economy," said state Sen. Butch Miller, who represents Hall County and is a member of the state Senate Transportation Committee.

Federal funds not enough
Georgia, like other East Coast states, is pushing to get federal dollars and permits to deepen the Savannah River by 6 feet. That would accommodate supersized cargo ships expected to arrive via the Panama Canal once it finishes a major expansion in 2014.

Savannah has the nation's fourth busiest container port, but officials fear losing business if its shipping channel remains too shallow.

President Barack Obama included $2.8 million for the Savannah harbor expansion in his proposed budget last month, and he helped secure $600,000 in federal funding last year.

That's still far from the $105 million from Washington that Deal and port officials have sought to fund the first year of construction. Overall, port officials need about $360 million in federal funds, with the state paying the rest.

"It's going to take a federal-state, public-private effort to coordinate the various agencies and industries to accomplish this," Miller said.

Port officials plan to seek permits to allow construction to begin after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers releases final studies on the project, expected later this spring.

They hope to finish deepening the harbor in 2016.

However, court challenges filed in South Carolina and opposition from the neighboring state's lawmakers are threatening to stall the project. The Savannah River is shared by Georgia and South Carolina, where opponents of the Savannah deepening say it would cause unacceptable environmental damage.

Also, the port at Charleston, S.C., is one of Savannah's biggest competitors.

Key industries seek more exports
Though poultry is Hall County's signature industry, isn't the biggest exporter; that's actually tractor manufacturer Kubota, which accounts for half of exports.

Still, Gainesville is known as the "Poultry Capital of the World" and its exports are seen as a major factor to the industry's health.

Those in local poultry say the success of the industry is closely tied to the Savannah port, the leading U.S.

container port for poultry exports. The port moved nearly "40 percent of U.S. containerized poultry exports or 1.6 billion pounds" in the last year, according to the Georgia Ports Authority.

"Having a world class shipping port would be important for us strategically in the future," said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.

Giles said Georgia poultry is shipped all over the world, with key business in Asia, Russia and Europe.

Local producers already face a shortage of shipping containers for moving products, said Karen Reece, vice president of Eskimo Cold Storage in Gainesville. The company blast-freezes food and stores them for shipping.

Most of its inventory is poultry, and most of that goes out for export.

The harbor deepening could address that by bringing bigger containers to ship more inventory.

There's even a possibility the deepening would allow Eskimo to expand and add jobs, Reece said.

For all of the economic good expected from the deepening, proponents say Georgia's economy would suffer without it and the port's standing would diminish.

"If you can't receive the containers, (the ships) will skip your port and move on," said Tim Evans, vice president of economic development for the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce.

That would have an obvious negative impact on Savannah's economy.

But that impact would certainly reach Northeast Georgia, too, Evans said. Businesses relying on imports and exports from Savannah would have to alter their routes to another port that accommodate the larger containers, or settle for the potentially decreased traffic at Savannah.

Although nearby Charleston is seeking a similar upgrade to its port, Evans said that city is years behind the permitting process in Savannah.

"Either way, it translates to higher costs and more time," he said. "That's what this boils down to: time and money."

The local cheerleaders of the Savannah harbor deepening are optimistic about the project's chances, despite the apparent challenges.

"I'm really confident it will happen," said Evans. "The details are largely politics."

Associated Press contributed to this story

 

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