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Game-changing Jasper port finally has a timeline

This photo provided by the Georgia Ports Authority shows the location where the bi-state Jasper Ocean Terminal will be located along the Back River in Jasper County, S.C.
This photo provided by the Georgia Ports Authority shows the location where the bi-state Jasper Ocean Terminal will be located along the Back River in Jasper County, S.C. Submitted

A project that promises to bring thousands of new jobs and an unprecedented level of economic activity to Jasper County finally has a start date.

Permitting for the long-anticipated Jasper Ocean Terminal -- which could reshape one of the poorest counties in the state -- will begin this fall under a new agreement between project leaders and the S.C. Ports Authority. It's the first time officials have set in stone a deadline to start the arduous federal permitting and review process.

But more importantly, it marks a tipping point in the efforts to bring the $4.5 billion, bi-state port project to reality after more than two decades of discussions and a series of lawsuits, say its advocates.

"In terms of economic impact, the Jasper port is on a scale comparable to what BMW did for the Upstate and Boeing for the Charleston area, if not greater," said Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who has worked to make the port a reality since 2007 when he was chief of staff for then-Gov. Mark Sanford.

But the port's most vocal advocate at the State House isn't here to celebrate the news. The late Sen. Clementa Pinckney, D-Ridgeland, was shot to death at his Charleston church June 17 in what authorities believe was a hate crime.

For 12 years, Pinckney and Davis worked closely to push the port in the S.C. General Assembly and with the S.C. Ports Authority.

"It's something that was extremely important to him," Davis said. "He would feel satisfaction now that South Carolinians who have long been neglected are finally being given their turn at bat. Clem was always the one urging patience ... We made a good team."

Last month, leaders from the port's Joint Project Office, Jasper County, and the South Carolina and Georgia ports authorities agreed to a new plan to begin the lengthy, eight-year federal permitting process by October, Davis said.

Although that means completion isn't scheduled until mid-2028, it's the first time Davis and port advocates have had a actual date they can point to, they said this week.

"Instead of this vague assertion that we recognize a Jasper port is needed, now we've got a blueprint with dates and deadlines and we can hold people accountable," Davis said. "For so many years there wasn't a sense of certainty that (the port) was going to happen .. The question is no longer if there's going to be a port. The question is when."

'LARGEST SINGLE LAND PORT'

The estimated $4.5 billion port and its immediate facilities will sit on 1,500 acres of recovered dredge material in the southernmost portion of Jasper County, near the Tybee National Wildlife Refuge at the mouth of the Savannah River.

Once complete, it will handle seven million units of shipping cargo that the ports in Savannah and Charleston won't be able to process when they reach capacity within the next 15 years, according to studies of the ports.

More than 900 jobs will be created directly and indirectly for the construction of the port alone in the early 2020s, generating $210 million in wages, one study found.

By 2040, with the complete build-out of the terminal, the port has the potential to create one million jobs and $9 billion in tax revenue between Georgia and South Carolina, according to a 2010 study by the University of Georgia and Wilbur Smith & Associates.

"Once this is totally complete, we're talking about the largest single land port in the country," said David Posek, chairman of the Joint Project Office that is overseeing the port's development. "That is a monumental achievement."

Enormous estimates aside, the basic logistics of building such an ambitious project and establishing the new road and rail infrastructure will demand thousands of new jobs at a minimum, Davis said.

And that doesn't take into account the businesses the port would eventually attract to the Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties region, he added.

A ROCKY PAST

Although leaders across state lines and organizations agree on the port's economic impact now, they weren't always on the same page.

The first idea for the Jasper terminal was the result of an S.C. Ports Authority study more than 20 years ago that investigated possible state port sites, said Jasper County administrator Andy Fulghum.

Then-county administrator Henry Moss -- Fulghum's predecessor -- was the first to pursue the idea in the late '90s, but neither the South Carolina nor the Georgia ports authorities were interested enough in the project to invest then, Fulghum said.

That's when Seattle-based SSA Marine got wind of the idea and jumped in to partner with the county to finance, build and operate the proposed port, Fulghum said. The only problem was that Georgia owned the site, which it used to dump Savannah River dredge spoils.

Japser County intended to use eminent domain to secure ownership of the 1,500-acre area. The condemnation set off a series of legal battles that stretched for years, twice reaching the S.C. Supreme Court, and creating bad blood between local leaders and state ports authority officials, Fulghum said.

The fights reached a fever pitch in 2006, spurring Sanford and then-Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue to intervene and strike a deal between the states to work together to build the port, said Davis, who negotiated the original intergovernmental agreement while working for Sanford.

That document created the Joint Project Office, which includes representatives from both states, to guide the port's development over 20 years. The group has spent the past seven years completing preliminary environmental, economic and design studies, said Posek, chairman of the office's board of directors.

But the project lost some of its steam this summer after Pinckney's death when it seemed S.C. Ports Authority officials were focused more on deepening the Charleston harbor than moving the Jasper port into permitting, Davis said.

It appeared the authority was backsliding into its old resistance to the new port, he said.

"I'd be lying if I didn't say it has been incredibly frustrating and at times disappointing," Davis said. "With the regulatory red tape, politics is front and center. It's not just the business points; if that were the case we'd have a Jasper port open by now, The problem is you've got to navigate all these political shoals as well."

Last month, Davis and Jasper County officials claimed the authority was breaching its contractual obligations to develop the Jasper port, instead focusing its effort on the Charleston harbor. In response, the authority agreed to begin permitting after the next harbor deepening report is received this fall, according to the agreement.

"There were a lot of hard feelings from those dealings. It's interesting in that dynamic," Fulghum said. "You have to understand the history, that we've earned our right to be skeptical. They have to go to great pains to prove they're working to us."

The deadline injects new life into the project and should help leave the hard feelings behind, said Davis, Fulghum and Posek.

"The detail is the beauty," Fulghum said. "That we have that timeline and everyone can understand it and touch it and feel it. That's been the problem with the project in the past. It involves so many people and so many different agendas, it's often very hard to communicate ... Now that all that is over, it's nice to see everybody focused."

'IT'S TRANSFORMATIVE'

While some officials had previously feared the Jasper port would compete with ports in Charleston and Savannah, leaders say it's becoming increasingly clear that they will eventually need Jasper's help.

Not only will Savannah and Charleston reach their capacity in the next few years, but even with their current dregding projects, cargo ships are getting too big and too tall to play limbo under the Talmadge Memorial and Arthur Ravenel Jr. bridges, Davis and Posek said.

"Quite honestly, the timing of these things and how you grow the volumes in both Charleston and Savannah have kind of come together," Posek said. "Now we're in a situation where we can see a coalescence of both ports needing a new port in the same kind of time frame. That's good. It's got some momentum behind it."

That growing acceptance is part of a broader understanding of the regional effect the new port will have across the Lowcountry and into southeastern Georgia, leaders said.

"What it'll do ultimately is tie Beaufort and Jasper closer to Savannah, and we'll become more much more like Charlotte and the communities around Rock Hill," said Dean Moss, chairman of the Savannah River Maritime Commission.

As the project moves through the next decade of permitting and design, the momentum behind it will bring more businesses to the area and the port's ripple effects will be evident before construction even begins, Moss speculates.

From improvements to U.S. 17 to environmental mitigation efforts to more respect and attention from the S.C. General Assembly, the port will be transformative for the entire area, Davis and Posek said.

"This corner of the state and Jasper County in particular is one of those places that's real easy for Columbia to ignore," Moss said. "We just have not had any willingness of the state of South Carolina to invest in our relationship with one of Georgia's largest cities.

"It's going to make a huge difference in ways that people probably don't appreciate," he continued. "It's all going to change."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach and on Facebook at facebook.com/IPBGZach.

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