GREER — South Carolina leaders stood on an expanse of gravel and mud Friday, promising in six months that patch of land in Greer would boost the state's economy in ways not seen for a generation.
The state Ports Authority held a groundbreaking for what it calls an inland port. There, shipping containers will come by rail from the port in Charleston and be put on trucks, planes or other trains to be shipped across the country and around the world.
The $25 million center is a key part of a 10-year, $1.3 billion plan to improve the authority's facilities and is just as important as getting the 45-foot shipping channel into Charleston deepened to 50 feet, port officials said.
The center also connects the international shipping powerhouse in Charleston with Interstate 85, which is one of the key highways not just in the state, but in all of the Southeast, said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, D-S.C.
“The two engines of the South Carolina economy are now connected. That's going to pay great dividends for this state,” Graham said.
The goal for the distribution center is to get containers from boats in Charleston on a train to the Upstate and ready to ship in 12 hours, bypassing an increasingly crowded Interstate 26. Port officials estimate the center could eliminate 50,000 truck trips a year between Charleston and the Greenville-Spartanburg area on I-26.
Those Norfolk Southern trains will head back to the port, too, and state leaders hope that leads to a manufacturing boom with the containers on board full of products made in South Carolina.
“If you are into the export business, come to South Carolina and locate around one of these centers of operation. We will get your product to any place in the world at low cost with a smile on our face,” Graham said.
Gov. Nikki Haley said she is excited because the new center directly helps both the Upstate and the Lowcountry and should help out all areas of South Carolina.
“We have been a state of regions for a long time. Now we have just connected the regions,” Haley said,
Greer officials called the center the biggest economic development project for the area since the BMW plant came to the region two decades ago. The groundbreaking ceremony was held less than 100 yards from the rail line where the containers will roll in. Greer Mayor Rick Danner recalled how that same rail line brought the first train to Greer in 1873 and changed the city forever.
“There have been a lot of trains come and go on this track since that maiden voyage over 130 years ago. But none will be more significant than the first one to pull into and back out of this inland port facility later this year,” Danner said.
Crews have already graded and leveled the site for the new center. Work only stopped briefly for Friday's ceremony before it will pick back up again, said state Ports Authority President and CEO Jim Newsome.
The inland port is also a special project to Newsome, who said since the idea first came up 30 years ago he has had to tolerate his share of comments like: “Jim, you're an idiot. What river are you going to deepen to get up to Greer?”
“It was clear to me at that time it was an innovate idea that was before it's time,” Newsome said. “Ladies and gentlemen, I can now say this project's time has come.”