A sea of local jobs and commerce for Jasper County hinges on a massive commercial port to be erected on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River.
That has officials of the rural county anxious to speed up development of the Jasper Ocean Terminal, a $5 billion project shared between Georgia and South Carolina.
Jasper County officials allege that a turf war between the rival states is threatening the 2025 opening date for the terminal and therefore shedding its ability to grab marketshare in the highly competitive Southeast market.
“The way we look at it, we will still be two years behind on this port,” said Henry Etheridge, chairman of the Jasper County Council.
Etheridge was referring to a study earlier this year that concluded the Jasper Port would be viable by 2025, but may not be completed until 2026 due to lengthy permitting processes.
“Both parties expect to be at 80 percent capacity by year 2025 to 2030 and everything we read says it takes 13 years to build a port,” Etheridge said. “That’s why we are a bit upset that no permits have been issued for the port.”
The Jasper port project was conceived in 2008 for a 1,500-acre site that is now a dredge-spoil area downriver from the Port of Savannah. The site will be charged with handling cargo once Port of Charleston and Port of Savannah reach capacity limits.
Etheridge was one of several Jasper County officials who spoke at the Propeller Club of Charleston meeting on Thursday night. They were pleading for local maritime groups to help nudge state officials to pick up the pace of the project.
“We need jobs, we need money for infrastructure and we need all the help we can get from Charleston,” Etheridge said, adding that residents are often forced to seek work outside the county.
Etheridge was joined Thursday by Tom Johnson, a councilman for Jasper County, who said “we need to start it now because a high-priced study says we are a year behind now.”
“This (terminal) is good for everybody unless you’re an entrenched turf-minded bureaucrat and we need somebody to look beyond that,” he said. “If the politics don’t allow it, then the economics will allow it. I find that when economics and business people are behind something, I find that politicians get behind it too.”
On Friday, some officials involved in the Jasper port development defended the pace of the project.
“Governor Haley is dedicated to seeing the Jasper Ocean Terminal become a reality as its final development would be a major game-changer for the region,” said Gov. Nikki Haley’s spokesman, Doug Mayer. “The benefits to the Jasper community speak for themselves and the governor is confident that this project has the support of the South Carolina Ports Authority and our Georgia partners.”
Other comments came from Dave Posek, chairman of the bi-state Jasper Ocean Terminal Project Office, the agency charged with the development of the terminal.
“We’re progressing as fast as we can given the set of studies we have to do,” said Posek, who also sits on the S.C. State Ports Authority board of directors.
Posek highlighted recent progress such as the capacity study launched by the Army Corps of Engineers. The study will research how many ships can flow through the Savannah River.
The studies are the early planning stages for the project that also faced some hiccups due to litigation.
“I think we have a balanced and thought-out plan that will get us to capacity when needed,” he said.
The latest developments also include $748,000 recently approved for studies and consulting work for the proposed port in the next year. The budget, however, did not include funds to start seeking construction permits in the coming year.
Posek said Friday that JPO officials remain dedicated to the project and there are efforts underway to speed things up by marrying the permit process with the permits needed to deepen Charleston Harbor.
In April, research firm Moffat & Nichols reported that the Jasper County terminal would be a viable operation by 2025, but may not open until 2026 because of the permitting processes. Officials for the firm said the findings were based on factors such as trends showing capacity topping out at existing ports in South Carolina and Georgia.
Posek said Friday that the firm’s date was an “optimistic number,” and there is belief that the need for the Jasper port could be as much as a decade later.
“We’ve said all along that we need a terminal in Jasper once the capacity at Garden City and Charleston are at a point when there is no place to go,” he said. “That number has been constantly confirmed in the early 2030s to 2035 and that changes by growth projections per year.”
Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the SPA, said the state’s maritime agency remains committed to the project. He added that the commitment is largely dependent on deepening the shipping lane between the ocean and Jasper port. There are current plans to deepen the Savannah River shipping channel from 42 to 47 feet.
“From South Carolina’s perspective, we believe this terminal will be constructed by the time it’s needed given the availability to deepen the harbor to at least 50 feet,” he said.
Reach Tyrone Richardson at 843-937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.