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Ports CEO: Charleston’s port must grow

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By Matt Tomsic
mtomsic@scbiznews.com
Published Nov. 16, 2011

The CEO of the S.C. State Ports Authority opened his State of the Port address with a simple theme: South Carolina has to overcome huge challenges to grow its port.

“We have to do it fast,” said CEO Jim Newsome. “And we have no time to waste.”

Included in his prepared remarks, Newsome said the port faces a huge challenge, but it is making progress beyond its numbers.

Port of CharlestonDuring fiscal year 2011, the ports authority handled more than 800,000 pier containers and 1 million tons of break-bulk volume, Newsome said.

The port also moved into the study phase of its harbor deepening project, improved the Columbus Street Terminal to better handle break-bulk and roll-on, roll-off cargo and began implementing a computer terminal operating system, called Navis.

“Growing our cargo base is the only way to grow our port,” Newsome said.

He said the port faces a multi-year effort to recover cargo lost from 2005 to 2009. The port’s growth plan targets a goal of 2 million containers by 2030 in addition to increases in break-bulk cargo. The ports authority plans to invest $1.3 billion during the next 10 years on its facilities.

“Growing only with the market is not an option,” Newsome said.

Business ebbs and flows, he said, and the ports authority can recover lost business, in part, because Charleston Harbor is the only harbor able to become post-Panamax, Newsome said.

“Our harbor is an ocean harbor, as opposed to a river harbor, and we think it has the attributes to do this,” he said.

Other South Atlantic ports are deepening their harbors, also, but those projects would only deepen those harbors to Charleston’s current depth.

Newsome said the import-export mix could also help drive growth at the port. Export ships need to be full when they leave the South Atlantic, and Charleston is the only harbor capable of providing the depth needed for a fully loaded ship.

With a growing middle class in emerging economies like China, the United States may begin exporting more goods, flipping the country’s import-export ratio with Asia of 3 to 1.

Too many empty containers leave the Port of Charleston, Newsome said, and transloading facilities like the Wando Transload facility will help fill those empty containers.

Newsome also addressed the port’s cruise business, which faces a lawsuit filed by neighborhood, preservation and conservation groups against Carnival Cruise Lines.

Newsome characterized the lawsuit as “extremely embarrassing” and “frivolous.”

“The cruise business is an important part of our business diversification effort, but it will never be part of our growth story, the reason being that the market in Charleston is simply not that big,” Newsome said.

He also spoke about his contract extension, approved earlier Tuesday by the ports authority board. Newsome’s three-year contract was scheduled to expire next year, and he approached the board about a new contract with an option to extend it, he said.

The board agreed to the new seven-year contract and raised Newsome’s pay from $300,000 to $350,000.

Newsome said he was appreciative of the new contract, which he called humbling.

He commended the port staff and gave a positive outlook for the ports authority.

“More than ever, I can say with confidence what I have said before — the best years of the Port of Charleston are ahead of us and not behind us,” Newsome said.

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