Trade talks South Carolina international conference marking its 40th year

A container ship squeezes into a lock along the Panama Canal, which is being expanded so that bigger vessels can avoid the long, costly journey around South America. The project will have big implications for East Coast U.S. ports.

Today kicks off the South Carolina International Trade Conference, an annual event that brings together leaders from the maritime industry and other businesses to discuss how to grow commerce in the Palmetto State.

It’s notable this year because it’s the 40th anniversary of the gathering, which is expected to draw hundreds to Wild Dunes on the Isle of Palms for the next three days.

The conference is being headlined by today’s discussions on logistics, how to bring more business to South Carolina, and the deepening of Charleston Harbor for larger vessels expected to stream from an expanded Panama Canal.

Even though the venue and event-goers have changed over the decades, the message remains the same, organizers say.

“The mission remains to support the port, local community and state intermodal trade environment,” said Stewart Bauknight, the 2013 conference chairwoman and a senior associate at Mount Pleasant-based technology consultancy Modus21 LLC.

The convention is sponsored by the S.C. State Ports Authority, and is expected to have a record attendance of 450 maritime professionals from around the nation.

“We’ve put forth a lot of effort to raise the profile of the conference in recent years, and we find it to be worthwhile to invite our customers and prospects to attend,” said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the SPA.

Other topics include discussions about shipping container markets, the industry’s challenges this year and beyond, the export boom and inland logistics. The event also includes for the first time a talk about the profound impact that electronic commerce is having on the transportation business.

“This is due to the affect,” Bauknight said.

Other previous hot-button topics that will carry over this year include the Panama Canal expansion and East Coast harbor-dredging projects. The canal-widening project dominated the discussions during the 2012 conference.

“This multibillion-dollar project is a game-changer for the shipping industry and is one of the major drivers of our own investments, including the need to deepen Charleston Harbor,” Newsome said.

Several East Coast ports, including Charleston, are looking to deepen harbors for the larger, heavier vessels the Panama Canal will be able to accommodate when the expansion wraps up in 2015. One of the problems, however, is limited federal dollars to help with projects.

The Port of Charleston is the deepest port between Norfolk and Miami and can handle large ships at high tide, but it needs a deeper shipping channel — 50 feet from its current depth of 45 — to ensure around-the-clock access.

Experts have said larger vessels mean more cargo flowing through a port and added jobs for the state.

Charleston’s dredging project has received a lot of national attention recently. That includes President Barack Obama mentioning Charleston seeking federal funds for dredging during a late-night TV interview with “The Tonight Show” host Jay Leno in August.

The topic of port dredging will surface again this month when Vice President Joe Biden visits Charleston and Savannah on Sept. 16, in advance of a trip to the Panama Canal.

The first trade conference was held in 1974 at the Mills House Hotel in downtown Charleston. Speakers have included governors and chief executives for major South Carolina companies like BMW and Michelin.

The 2013 event coincides with a new export-boosting initiative that World Trade Center Charleston, a part of the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce, recently unveiled with help from the Brookings Institution. The Charleston Metro Export Plan calls for forming a regional council that would be tasked with helping small businesses increase the volume of goods they ship overseas.

Last year, Brookings picked Charleston as one of eight communities selected to participate in its Metropolitan Policy Program, which is looking at ways to increase exports based on local assets and capacities.

Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550 and follow him on Twitter @tyrichardsonPC.