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March 2014
GLOBAL VISION: Southeast Ports Partner in International Trade
By Pete Prunkl

     Self-help gurus assure us that we don’t need a title to be a leader or a million dollars to retire well. But some needs seem to have a natural partner. A city, for example, should have an ocean or at least a major river to call itself a port. Norfolk, Va.; Wilmington, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.; and Savannah, Ga., qualify. They have easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. St. Louis and Memphis are inland ports on the Mississippi River.

     How about Charlotte? In 1984, Charlotte was named an “inland port” for North Carolina. Are we transporting goods to market by raft on the Catawba?

     Charlotte along with Greer, SC., Front Royal, Va., and Cordele, Ga., are prime examples of what the United Nations calls a dry port. Dry ports are often hundreds of miles from the ocean or a navigable river. They provide a synergistic hub for trains, trucks, storage yards and cranes that save time, reduce expenses, decrease congestion around the real port and close gaps in America’s transportation system.

     Charlotte Inland Terminal (CIT) General Manager Robert Dawson explains. Consider imports. When goods travel from port to port and not from port to the customer’s door, Dawson’s staff can arrange for trucks to finish the trip. It is a service CIT provides once a week for a freight-forwarding client.

     CIT also enables customers to move their product to ocean terminals for export. Area timber companies like Weyerhaeuser are typical. Its headquarters books space on a container ship traveling to overseas ports, but Weyerhaeuser relies on CIT to get its product to the dock on time.

     Dawson has a network of trucking companies he calls for just such a need. “Today I have to get lumber to the Port of Wilmington by 4:00 p.m.” says Dawson. If the trucks miss the deadline, they find themselves in the same bind as late-arriving tourists. Like no shows at the Hampton Inn, the shipping company offers the space to someone else.

     CIT’s headquarters in northwest Charlotte is a storage site for 300 shipping containers, the ingenious 20 ft. by 8 ft. by 8 ft. boxes pioneered by North Carolina native Malcolm McLean. Containers coming into Charlotte by rail from ports around the country are picked up by area truckers at the CSX rail yard or at the new Norfolk Southern Charlotte Regional Intermodal Facility at Charlotte Douglas International Airport. The truckers deliver the containers to a customer and bring the empties to CIT for cleaning, storage and reuse.

     “Ninety-five percent of our shipping containers are empty,” says Dawson. “Basically my facility is nine acres of asphalt with two machines that lift containers off or onto truck chassis. Anyone who needs containers lifted comes here. And it is easier for exporters to get an empty container here than to go to Wilmington.”


Wilmington: N.C. Deep Sea Port

     In the mid to late 1980s, containers came to Charlotte from the Port of Wilmington by truck and rail. The old Seaboard line moved 300 containers a month by rail to the Queen City. North Carolina State Ports Authority (NCSPA) paid the rail line $1 million annually for the service.

     In 1989, three years after the merger that formed CSX, rail container shipments to Charlotte ended. CSX claimed there was not enough volume at Wilmington to justify continued rail service and that major hub ports like Savannah, Charleston and Norfolk were better able to handle container shipments inland by rail.

     “We have been in conversation with CSX about resuming that service,” says Tom Guthrie, director of liner services at NCSPA. “But we’ve not been successful yet.” There are two sides to CSX, explains Guthrie: CSX-I, the intermodal container division, and CSX-T, the boxcar division. CSX-T trains leave Wilmington every day. “We are trying to get CSX to add containers to that train a couple of times a week.”

     North Carolina has been in the import and export business long before 1984 when Charlotte became an inland port. In 1945, the General Assembly created the State Ports Authority to develop and improve the harbors and seaports at three ports: Wilmington, Morehead City and Southport.

     In his book, Waterways to the World, historian Walter Turner explains the unintended consequences of that political decision. “In retrospect it would have been wiser to begin with a clear understanding to make Wilmington the major port, with Morehead City as a secondary port. One of the key reasons the state ports authorities of Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia have been successful is that each had a mandate to build one major state port.”

     Today containers and bulk cargo like dry cement dominate the 284-acre Port of Wilmington. Grains, chemicals, fertilizers, ores, minerals and cement are Wilmington’s chief imports. Forest products like lumber, paper and forage for livestock lead the list of exports with woodchips and wood pulp close behind.

     Before the invention of the forklift, bales, barrels, bags and lumber were considered bulk cargo. They now go by the moniker break bulk. North Carolina’s break bulk lumber market has declined significantly since 2006 with the collapse of the housing market attributed much of the blame.

     The cargo is quite different at the Port of Morehead City. No container ships dock there. Bulk cargo rules the import and export sides of the 128-acre port. Sulphur products, rubber, scrap metal, potash and ores are its chief imports. Phosphate and phosphate products are by far the terminal’s leading export. PCS Phosphate is the largest player at the Morehead City port. Its phosphate mine in Aurora, N.C., is one of the richest in the world.

     Southport is a different story. After spending $30 million in 2006 for 600 acres north of Southport, North Carolina State Ports Authority had dreams of a port that would rival Savannah and Charleston. New super-sized ocean-going transports that would easily maneuver through an expanded Panama Canal were the prime customers for the North Carolina International Port. By 2011, the dream evaporated. There were already enough deep East Coast ports for post-Pamamax vessels that are expected in 2015.

     Ports are considered post-Panamax-ready when their channel is 50 feet deep, their cranes are capable of loading and unloading the larger and wider ships, and their docks are engineered to handle the new and larger cranes. Southport was too shallow, too remote, and too late to play in U.S.A.’s major league. Development is officially on hold and there is talk of converting the area to a state park, not a port.

     Though North Carolina States Port Authority’s mission is to enhance the state’s economy, it only benefits a few instate companies. In Waterways to the World, Walter Turner estimates that 75 to 80 percent of North Carolina’s businesses that engage in international trade utilize ports outside the state.


Savannah: Ga. Deep Sea Port

     Savannah pops up on the radar screen of many importers and exporters. For the past 15 years, it has been the United States’ fastest growing port. The Journal of Commerce reports that among the 41 East Coast ports, Savannah ranks second for container tonnage after New York/New Jersey. Their second place standing covers both imports and exports. After Savannah, Norfolk comes in at No. 3 with Charleston at No. 4. The North Carolina’s ports at Wilmington and Morehead City are at the bottom of both lists.

     Savannah is now in the construction phase of SHEP—the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project. It has taken 15-years of plans, studies, applications, postponements, environmental discussions, comment periods, permits and Acts of Congress to get to this point. Construction will take four years and result in a 47-foot deep harbor and a 49-foot entrance channel for 36 miles of the Savannah River.

     The project includes developing connector roads from the port to I-95 and I-16. The result will be a single, massive container terminal on a 1,200-acre footprint. “That allows the kinds of efficiencies you don’t find at the typical American port,” says Robert Morris, senior director of corporate communications at GPA. “Cargo traveling by rail or truck goes to one facility to drop off or pick up loads. It presents a great opportunity for businesses to increase speed and efficiency and reduce cost.”

     Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) manages two seaports: Savannah and Brunswick port, 80 miles to the south. Georgia’s imports mirror what the average American thinks we bring to our shores. Leading the list is furniture, the product North Carolina lost to overseas manufacturers in the late 1990s. Next are retail consumer goods, machinery, appliances, electronics, automotive, hardware and houseware goods. Mooresville’s Lowes, the country’s second largest hardware chain, and Charlotte-based Electrolux are among Savannah’s major importers.

     Food ranks second after wood pulp as GPA’s leading export. And poultry is a major player in the food big leagues. By year’s end, GPA will be well into the second phase of its new 200,000 square-foot Nordic Cold Storage facility. When completed, Nordic will blast or shock freeze more that 10 million pounds of poultry and produce each week. The Port of Savannah already handles nearly 40 percent of the nation’s containerized poultry exports.

     The Colonel’s Island Terminal at Brunswick is GPA’s automobile export and import center. It is currently the second busiest auto terminal in the United States with double-digit growth in the past three years, says Morris. Automobiles exported include KIA, BMW and Toyota. Mercedes-Benz automobiles assembled in Vance, Ala., are shipped from Brunswick to Germany, the fatherland of this iconic brand.


Charleston: S.C. Deep Sea Port

     Add Greer, S.C., to America’s short list of dry inland ports. The 40-acre site opened in October 2013 as part of the South Carolina State Ports Authority (SCPA). Unlike Charlotte’s inland port, rail traffic provides a vital link to the sea.

     “Ten trains run weekly,” says Erin Pabst, public relations manager for SCPA. Five import and five export trains run overnight between Greer and Charleston. Rail traffic to and from Greer by Norfolk-Southern has removed an estimated 25,000 containers traveling by truck along I-26. SCPA expects containers to and from their inland port to eventually reach 100,000.

     While CSX trains may not travel between Charlotte and Wilmington, there is good rail connectivity from Charlotte to Greer and Charlotte and Charleston provided by Norfolk-Southern. That fact plus its size, efficiency and productivity gives the Port of Charleston a competitive advantage over Wilmington for Charlotte’s business.

     Even North Carolina’s highways favor Charleston. Interstate travel from Charlotte to Charleston is almost 100 miles shorter than the I-77, I-85, I-40 trip from Charlotte to Wilmington. No wonder Pabst says, “Charlotte is one of our largest import and export markets.”

     Among the larger North Carolina companies connecting to South Carolina ports are Siemens, Continental Tire, Deere-Hitachi, Husqvarna and S&D Coffee. Looking at the bigger picture, much of our furniture, lumber, machinery parts, chemicals, textiles and recyclable materials such as PET plastics and paper is exported from Charleston. Even our frozen turkeys head to the Palmetto City. “Poultry is a growing market for the SCPA,” says Pabst.


Two New S.C. Deep Sea Ports?

     There are two new Southern ports are on the drawing board.

     South Carolina Ports is well into Phase 1 demolition, site clearing and construction of the 280-acre Navy Base Terminal. This three-birth SCPA-funded terminal is located on the south end of the former Charleston Naval Shipyard. The federal government closed the ship-building and repair facility in 1996.

     Navy Base Terminal is expected to increase container capacity of the Port of Charleston by 50 percent when it commences operations in 2019. Since 2005, the area north of the new terminal has undergone revitalization as a mixed-use urban hub and historic district for the city of North Charleston.

     Prospects for a new terminal in Jasper County, S.C., do not seem as rosy. Putting aside a rivalry that extends beyond football, South Carolina and Georgia signed an agreement in 2007 to collaborate on the development of the Jasper Ocean Terminal. That key piece of land sits on the Savannah River south of Hilton Head Island.

     Last year a consulting firm estimated that it would take 13 years to obtain the necessary permits to build the new 1,500-acre terminal, the country’s largest contiguous port. Jasper Ocean Terminal Board Chair Dave Posek apparently wants to delay construction even further. He prefers waiting until the ports at Charleston and Savannah near capacity in about 17 years.

     Are Southern ports ready for the big changes that lie ahead once an expanded Panama Canal opens in 2015? Charleston and Norfolk are ready. Savannah will be ready by 2018, the completion date for its often delayed expansion. The Port at Wilmington will not be able to accept the largest post-Panamax ships, but that is not necessarily a disadvantage.

     Senior Director for External Affairs for NCSPA Laura Blair explains: “There is not one post-Panamax vessel, but a wide variety. We are talking with our customers and asking what they think we need to do to meet their needs.”

     The ports at Wilmington, Charleston, Savannah and Norfolk are the South’s gateway to global trade. They are job-creating magnets for international trade and investment. In what many are calling the post-Panamax decade, these great economic engines will provide Charlotte businesses with an array of opportunities for new markets, more sources of raw materials and greater profits.


Pete Prunkl is a Greater Charlotte Biz freelance writer.
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