A grand plan to redevelop downtown Charleston's Union Pier Terminal means making waterfront land accessible to the public and creating a modern operation for cruise passengers. It also means moving one of the port's most important customers.
BMW would shift north from Union Pier to Columbus Street Terminal, a change that would eliminate rail switching sites that stall traffic within the historic district.
Maurice Fox, president of the nearby Dockside community, welcomed that news Friday.
"(BMW) is a very good neighbor with one exception: The trains come through there," Fox said. "And it seems they're much more adept at coming in when I want to get to an appointment."
State Ports Authority officials began considering alternative sites for the luxury German automaker's business years ago. Bobby Hitt, public affairs manager for BMW Manufacturing Co. in Greer, said the company looked at virtually every port terminal except Wando Welch in Mount Pleasant, which offers no rail service.
"We're very happy to move there," Hitt said of Columbus Street. "We have always intended to move out of Union Pier. We knew it would not be big enough for us in the long run."
The ambitious timeline for Union Pier's redevelopment calls for a request for proposals from architects by year's end and a start to construction a year later. A new cruise terminal would open in the third quarter of 2012, then planning would shift toward the nonport components, including a historic landing at the Customhouse and a public plaza at the foot of the building.
Relocating BMW north should make the company's operations more efficient, Hitt said. The SPA adapted Union Pier to accommodate BMW years ago, but the automaker currently shares space with cruise traffic and also the facade of a historic rice mill.
While the Port of Charleston continues to lose its BMW import traffic to other points of entry, it remains the primary export site for the luxury automobiles and keeps growing.
Nearly two years ago, BMW began shifting its imports away from Charleston when it moved a portion of the business to Brunswick, Ga. This year, the Port of Baltimore announced that it would handle 50,000 import cars annually that previously came through the Port of Charleston.
Charleston will handle only about 10,000 BMW imports per year, or about one-tenth of its 2007 level, according to officials with the carmaker. But while losing its role in handling imports, Charleston will handle at least 100,000 exports this year, officials estimate.
Hitt said he expects to see as many as 150,000 cars exported per year within the near future. He also said BMW's container business at the Port of Charleston should virtually double in the next four or five years.
The company's Upstate plant marked a milestone in its 15-year history in April when its 1 millionth X5 sport-utility vehicle rolled off the assembly line. Earlier this week, BMW announced that production of its new X3 sport utility vehicle had begun at the sprawling factory in Greer.
The SPA leases the acreage under the plant to the company for $1 a year.
"Business at the port is great," Hitt said. "It is not diminishing. It is increasing."
The SPA recently approved a contract to raise and pave the Columbus Street Terminal, which will create more cargo space. And all port terminals soon will switch to the common-user model, eliminating deals in which shipping lines license areas on the docks. Officials estimate that the restructured operation will generate as much as 15 percent more capacity.
The SPA looked at moving BMW to its North Charleston Terminal but decided that the facility lacked sufficient space, according to agency spokesman Byron Miller. The SPA also considered Veterans Terminal, yet a persisting debate over railroad tracks there posed an obstacle, as did the lack of proper piers for handling roll-on/roll-off cargo such as cars.
"Veterans is several years away, and our needs are now," Hitt explained.
Miller said Veterans Terminal in the long term could prove to be the ideal place for BMW.
Reach Allyson Bird at email@example.com or 937-5594.