Georgetown port volume plunges; Charleston's rises

While container volume at the Port of Charleston has increased, the Port of Georgetown's volume has been cut almost in half in the past year.

In the 2010 fiscal year, the port had traffic volume of 164,571 tons, said Byron Miller, spokesman for the S.C. Ports Authority. That number is down 43 percent, or 121,682 tons, from the volume the port had in the 2009 fiscal year.

Miller said that decrease was because of the economic downturn but also because the port, which used to be 27 feet deep, is now about 21 feet deep. He said the shallower depth restricts the options for port business.

"That greatly limits the ability to bring in ships," he said, meaning very small ships or barges are the only options for Georgetown.

But he said the Ports Authority has an "aggressive budget for business through Georgetown."

"Every new noncontainer we heard about, the first place we try to put it is Georgetown," he said.

And Miller said there are at least three potential new customers for the Port of Georgetown that the authority is working with.

"One is bringing in rock, the others steel and forest product," he said.

He said the authority's plan is to bring in around 507,000 tons of freight to Georgetown during the 2011 fiscal year, a 214 percent increase from 2010.

"We're being aggressive this fiscal year," Miller said.

Miller said the economic downturn meant the Port of Georgetown lost some local shipping last year with the closing of the steel mill and other clients.

He said part of that tripling in volume will simply be to get the port back to where it used to be. Miller said the port had a peak volume of around 1.5 million tons.

About 60 miles down the coast, Charleston's container volume has rebounded almost to where it was two years ago, but the head of the Ports Authority warns the future remains uncertain.

Jim Newsome, president and chief executive of the authority, doesn't expect to see such sharp increases in month-to-month business.

"I would say we have hit a new volume plateau," he said. "I think the economic prospects are concerning. I don't think the economy is that strong."

Newsome said it appears that shipments from Asia - many of them consumer goods for the holidays - came early this year. Generally, those shipments come in late summer and the fall.

"Last year there were no shortages of anything because the economy was down," he said. "This year people had to restock. There were shortages of containers and shortages of vessel space so a lot of people hedged their bets and shipped early."

He said those early shipments are reflected by the increase in port volume in recent months. In the coming months, "I think there will be a leveling off in demand," he said.

Newsome said the expansion of the cruise business in Charleston to a year-round season this year has helped the ports. The Carnival Fantasy is now based in Charleston.

"It's very important for us to diversify our business base. We were way too dependent on container freight," he said.

Newsome said while the cruise business is only about 10 percent of the authority's revenue base, "it's an important component of our revenue. It's reliable, it comes every week and we have a homeport, which is different than before. And this business puts a lot of people to work."

Miller said he hopes to see the draft of Georgetown's port returned to 27 feet, "so we can realize the potential that is Georgetown."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.