Our Port, Our Jobs

By Mark Cothran
October 01, 2012

Probably the biggest economic development news this summer in South Carolina was the State Ports Authority’s announcement that it would create an inland port facility in the Upstate. But without an ocean or a major body of water around Greer, how does one create a port?

That’s where Jones Lang LaSalle, a global real estate firm, comes in to dispel any confusion by offering this definition: an inland port is a hub designed to move international shipments more efficiently from maritime ports inland for distribution throughout the United States heartland.  What that means specifically for South Carolina is an inland port facility in the Upstate where shipping containers can be transferred between trucks and trains – increasing business for the Port of Charleston, while also taking up to 50,000 trucks off the state’s highways annually, according to the SC Ports Authority

According to the Charleston Post and Courier, the Ports Authority had long considered creating an inland port at various times since at least 1982, the year it purchased the land for the proposed inland facility in Greer. The idea was the Ports Authority’s reach could be extended by giving companies a direct rail connection between the Greenville-Spartanburg area and the Port of Charleston. Shipping containers unloaded at Charleston port terminals also could be loaded onto trains at Norfolk Southern’s intermodal yard in North Charleston and transferred back to trucks in Greer, which is about 220 miles inland. Conversely, containers could be loaded in the Upstate for rail delivery back to North Charleston.

Why the Upstate?  It simply makes good business sense, and it’s an easy case to make. A study by Columbia-based Wilbur Smith Associates found that an inland terminal in the Upstate would provide the greatest proportional share of public benefits. For those of us who reside in the Upstate, we know that our business and industry here rely on the Port, and the demand is only growing. We are fully aware of the impact that companies like BMW, Michelin, and General Electric have had on our region and how it relies on port operations to remain successful.

Approximately $5.3 billion in wages are generated annually by port-related jobs in the Upstate, and our area ranks 29th among 150 metropolitan areas in the U.S. for potential export growth. Currently, two-thirds of all the manufacturing jobs in the Upstate reside with companies that ship products to other countries, and, therefore, heavily dependent on the coastal port for doing business. Now that we live in such a global economy, South Carolina’s ability to export products overseas takes on even greater significance.

In February of this year, the S.C. Department of Commerce released a report indicating that S.C. had surpassed Michigan as the largest exporter of vehicles in the United States. According to the Spartanburg Herald Journal, BMW Manufacturing’s Spartanburg County production plant near Greer shipped 192,000 vehicles through the port last year, a 75 percent increase compared with 110,000 vehicles in 2010. The plant’s exports were valued at $7.4 billion in 2011, compared with $4.4 billion the year before. Additionally, a University of South Carolina report shows that each of the 7,000 jobs at the Spartanburg plant right now generates another three to four jobs directly or indirectly.    

It’s also no secret that South Carolina has become the nation’s top tire manufacturing state.  Michelin North America, headquartered in the Greenville County, is S.C.’s largest producer of passenger, commercial, and specialty tires. The company contributed greatly to a nearly 24 percent increase in our state’s export of tires, which rose to $1.6 billion last year.

In addition, all of GE’s Greenville production in 2011, an estimated 16,000 tons, was exported to world markets. Of the 3,100 GE Energy employees in the Upstate, 1,400 were engaged in the manufacturing of gas turbines.

Now that the Ports Authority has authorized spending up to $25 million to create the facility on land that it already owns in Greer, BMW alone is expected to ship between 20,000 and 25,000 containers annually between Charleston and their manufacturing plant via the new inland port and rail line. Ports Authority officials have estimated that, within three years, the total capacity of the inland port could reach 50,000 containers annually.

Thanks to the S.C. General Assembly’s committing $300 million this past legislative session to harbor deepening, as well as the continued work of our Congressional delegation in Washington, businesses in the Palmetto State should be reassured that our state will be ready to accommodate the mega-ships expected on a regular basis along the East Coast after the widening of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014. And now, with the inland port’s expected fall 2013 opening, our entire state will further benefit from even more robust economic development, as well as needed relief from I-26 road congestion.  

Port operations currently facilitate 260,800 jobs across South Carolina and nearly $45 billion in economic activity each year. With this latest announcement from the S.C. Ports Authority, prospects are only looking brighter.

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