Business booming at Union Pier Litigation stalls waterfront redevelopment

The State Ports Authority moved its BMW business from Union Pier to its Columbus Street Terminal a few years ago. Union Pier is once again bustling with cargo operations now that a lawsuit has stalled the redevelopment of the property.

Rolls of metal coils are stacked high in the large structure labeled Building 318 at Union Pier Terminal in downtown Charleston.

The neighboring Building 322 stores some wood products and paper. Outside its doors are dozens of sun-bleached military tanks awaiting export, just a short distance from the sounds of forklifts and trucks.

This wasn’t exactly what the State Ports Authority had envisioned for the property just a few years ago.

It planned to have a shiny new cruise terminal up and running in Building 322 by mid-2012, replacing the aging structure at the south end of the pier, near the historic City Market. The rest of the waterfront property was to be redeveloped for homes, businesses and parks.

But litigation has stalled the terminal project, making the 65-acre Union Pier available to help handle the sharp uptick in “break-bulk” cargo that doesn’t fit neatly in shipping containers.

The SPA said its noncontainerized volume spiked 42 percent in April. Tonnage is up 17 percent since the agency’s fiscal year started July 1.

“We’ve decided that while the issues relative to the new cruise terminal are unresolved, we will continue to make use of Union Pier Terminal for its break-bulk abilities,” said Jim Newsome, chief executive of the SPA. “It’s consistent with what we have said for years, and that it will be a cargo terminal until it is eventually a passenger terminal.”

A few years ago, SPA shifted much of its break-bulk business — including South Carolina-made BMW exports — to the larger Columbus Street Terminal a few hundred yards north.

Starting last summer, some of that cargo has floated back to Union Pier. Since August, 11 vessels have set anchor at the terminal, the SPA’s smallest, carrying 60,818 tons of break-bulk goods.

This month, another four are scheduled to arrive. A few weeks ago, Greig Star Shipping announced it will use Union Pier for its new monthly break-bulk service from South America.

To date, the cargo that has crossed the terminal has include steel wire coils, steel billets and blocks of carbon. The imports have been mostly raw materials that feed local manufacturing plants. The rest is made either locally or regionally and exported overseas.

Newsome said the improving economy and demand for goods to supply developing nations is fueling the growth. Competing ports in states such as Georgia and Virginia have reported growing break-bulk business as well.

Newsome said Union Pier hasn’t required any major updating. Also, the property is ideal for break-bulk cargo because it’s equipped with rail access and two large warehouses.

Its revival as a working cargo port is temporary, Newsome said, as the SPA still plans to covert the 108,000-square-foot Building 322 into its new cruise terminal.

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Local neighborhood groups and environmentalists have other thoughts. They have filed lawsuits to block the $35 million plan, saying it will bring more tourists, traffic congestion and fumes to the historic district.

The Coastal Conservation League, one of the groups opposing the new cruise terminal, calls the rebirth of break-bulk at Union Pier a good idea, but also potentially contradictory.

“If this is a step toward moving back to their core business, then that would be good news,” said Dana Beach, the group’s executive director. “But if they’re going to continue this campaign of uncontrolled cruise business and on top of that add more activity to Union Pier, then that really doesn’t make sense, and that is contradictory of the ports authority saying before that they can’t combine cruise operations and cargo together.”

The league and neighborhood associations have said the new passenger terminal would be a better if relocated to SPA’s Columbus Street terminal. Newsome and other SPA officials have said that’s not feasable, in part because Columbus Street has been growing, thanks to the BMW business and other noncontainerized cargo.

Union Pier has been eyed for several redevelopment plans in recent decades.

The latest concept was unveiled in February 2010. The SPA-commissioned plan called for demolishing most of the buildings and opening up some 50 acres of valuable waterfront land for public use and redevelopment. It also showed the cruise ship terminal moving to Building 322.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550.