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Ports leader: Savannah port poised for exponential growth
Clifford Pyron, chief commercial officer for the Georgia Ports Authority, gives a presentation at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors meeting Thursday at the Gainesville Civic Center.

The Savannah port — already the fourth-busiest in the United States — is poised for exponential growth that should spur more economic development in Hall County and the rest of the state, a ports leader told Hall County business leaders Thursday.

“Our role is to be an enabler of local commerce to spur economic development,” said Clifford Pyron, chief commercial officer for the Georgia Ports Authority, during a presentation at the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors meeting at the Gainesville Civic Center.

The statewide economic impact of GPA already is major — facilitating $84 billion in sales, adding $33 billion to the state gross domestic product and 370,000 direct and indirect jobs — according to statistics compiled by the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia.

Pyron said the authority is quickly gearing up for more rapid growth. He called the Panama Canal expansion “a gamechanger” that will allow bigger ships to deliver their cargo at the Savannah port.

“Why is this important to the people in this room?” he asked. “This extends our reach with the Panama Canal. You are going to see very shortly more intermodal opportunity to move freight by rail to all the destinations going further and further west. It expands the reach of our port.”

The GPA executive said the state-owned enterprise invested $160 million in 2016 on the Savannah Harbor expansion project to get the channel deepened so it can handle the big ships. It is investing another $142 million this year.

Pyron said all of the authority’s investments come from its own generated revenues, and not from the state.

Only the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach and New York-New Jersey have more traffic than Savannah, but Pyron said those ports have multiple terminals compared to Savannah’s one.

As part of its expansion inland from the port, Pyron said the authority broke ground last month on the Appalachian Regional Port on Interstate 75 near Chatsworth, which is about 80 miles from Gainesville.

The Appalachian port is expected to be completed in about two years and is expected to relieve major thoroughfares in the greater Atlanta area of 100,000 trucks, Pyron said.

“Inland roads are going to open up light manufacturing, distribution centers and free trade zones,” he said. “It’s going to generate and spur economic development into those regions where we’re putting those ports.”

In line with its expansion plan, the authority recently inaugurated its first “last-mile connector” linking the port to Interstate 95. Another connector linking the port to Interstate 16 is in the works. Gainesville is 300 miles from the port by way of I-16.

Tim Evans, the chamber’s vice president of economic development, said transportation and port access “are high among our competitive advantages of talent, business environment and infrastructure.”

“Gainesville-Hall County is part of the global economy of specialization and trade, and the Georgia ports facilities are a key part of the supply chain of commerce,” Evans added.