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Georgia View: The Bigger Picture

When envisioning Georgia’s ports, you might think of burly longshoremen operating forklifts and manually unloading huge trunks and crates off the port side of a docked ship. That On the Waterfront vision may still exist in many a third-world port, but Georgia’s ports are much more similar to watching the space dock loading of the Starship Enterprise.

And Georgia ports are not even always on water. There are inland ports and, of course, airports, including the world’s busiest, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. After all, whether by land, air or sea, a port is simply a logistics hub for moving goods and raw materials.

However, unless you live on Georgia’s coast, the economic impact of our ports may be less than fully visible to you. The Port of Savannah is the nation’s single largest container shipping facility and is the fourth busiest port. The Savannah port is second in the nation in exporting goods “Made in America.” Auto import facilities at the Port of Brunswick make it the nation’s busiest facility for the import of foreign-manufactured automobiles.

And yet, as big and successful as these ports are, to stay on top, they simply have to get bigger. With the new Panamax ships already sailing the high seas and more to follow as Panama opens its larger canal locks in 2015, the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project has broken ground to deepen the shipping lanes by five feet to keep loaded Panamax vessels from getting stuck in the muck at low tide.

It’s hard to envision the scope of this ‘big dig,’ the culmination of almost 20 years of effort by Georgia’s congressional delegation and four different governors. Nearly half of the state and federal $706-million project budget is aimed at environmental impact measures, as well as side jobs like resurrecting a Confederate Civil War-era ironclad, the Georgia, rusting away at the bottom of the shipping lane. Dredging will extend the entrance channel from the mouth of the Savannah River seven miles farther into the Atlantic Ocean and is expected to take five years to complete.

“And I’ll be watching until that last dollar is spent and last scoop of mud is removed,” says Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) Executive Director Curtis Foltz of the coming Herculean task to dredge the shipping channel to 47 feet.

Back in the 1940s, Georgia’s leaders had the foresight to position the Savannah port upstream at Garden City and away from historic downtown Savannah. Now the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) is putting the final touches on the ‘last mile’ of direct interstate access, giving Jimmy DeLoach Parkway a 3.1-mile, $73-million link of direct port access to I-16 and I-95, currently accessed by truckers via slightly circuitous paths of state highways and two-lane blacktop.

The extension will allow trucks to turn off of the interstates directly into the port without any stop lights, resulting in an eight-minute reduction in turn times. GDOT also recently built an overpass improving access and egress to one of the Savannah port’s two Class One rail yards, operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX Transportation.

In addition to rail operations offering the fastest direct path to markets across the United States and same day/next day access to the entire Eastern seaboard, the GPA operates smaller but still-critical ports in Columbus and Bainbridge.

It may be hard for the average small business to fully appreciate the impact on the region’s economy or the jobs that these ports help create. One of the better-known success stories is a once-modest exporter of poultry products, Norcross-based AJC International. The company discovered a gold mine of want, particularly in Asia, for one of the less desirable byproducts of Georgia’s massive poultry industry … chicken feet.

AJC International has grown from a Norcross-based employer in 1972 to a global player in the food industry with customers and sales in 140 countries and 15 international offices. AJC International is also responsible for a large share of the legion of refrigerated containers at the Savannah Port stacked several stories tall.

Part of what fuels the success of the Georgia ports is the focus by port workers and management on customer success – and perhaps a touch of Southern hospitality. 

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