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S.C. Ports Authority agrees to close Georgetown port under reuse plan

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The Port of Georgetown, operated by the State Ports Authority, has seen cargo dwindle over the past decade

The State Ports Authority has agreed to close its struggling Port of Georgetown so local governments can include it in a redevelopment plan to replace the city's idled steel mill with a mixture of waterfront businesses and light industry, officials said Tuesday.

The redevelopment efforts are in the early stages and there is no timetable for the port's closure, said Clint Eisenhauer, the SPA's senior vice president for external affairs. Eisenhauer said the breakbulk facility along the Sampit River about 60 miles north of Charleston will continue to operate for the foreseeable future, but it makes sense for the property to be included in a reuse plan.

"It allows for a more integrated project as opposed to a developer having to carve out parcels," he said.

Georgetown's city and county governments are moving forward with a joint agreement that specifies what steps they will take to spur redevelopment of the steel mill site, including possible creation of special tax districts and annexation of the SPA's property. Georgetown City Council approved the agreement last week, and Georgetown County Council was scheduled to discuss it Tuesday.

However, Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville said redevelopment efforts are being thwarted by mill owner ArcelorMittal

"We've tried to get them to come to the table, but they won't communicate with us," Scoville said of the Luxembourg-based steel giant. Scoville said the last time the city heard from the company was in June.

An ArcelorMittal spokeswoman did not respond to The Post and Courier's requests for comments. The company closed the Georgetown mill in August 2015, leaving 226 people without jobs. The shutdown has cost the city about $500,000 in annual tax and business license revenue.

In September, the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit that promotes responsible land use, sponsored a week-long series of meetings to brainstorm ideas for revitalizing the 150-acre waterfront site of the mill and port. A plan was formed to create "an incubator for entrepreneurs, businesses and sectors that will help diversify the economy and forge a new economic destiny for Georgetown," according to the group's website.

Scoville said there are "serious and very capable developers who want to purchase the property," but they cannot get a response from ArcelorMittal.

"It's a tremendous opportunity, but for whatever reason the company won't talk to us," Scoville said. "It's frustrating."

Scoville said local governments want to include the port property in any redevelopment plan because its ongoing operation as maritime facility "is not feasible."

The fast-silting harbor makes it difficult for ships to visit the port and it will take $66 million - money the federal government says it doesn't have - to deepen the channel to its maximum 27-foot depth.

"Frankly, the ports authority would be happy to get rid of the property and focus on Charleston," Scoville said.

Eisenhauer said the SPA, which also operates the Port of Charleston, would be in favor of Georgetown annexing the port for redevelopment because the city could then generate tax revenue from the property. The SPA, a state agency, does not pay taxes. Any annexation would have to be approved by the State Fiscal Accountability Authority.

The Port of Georgetown's fortunes mirrored the adjacent steel mill, which was among the facility's biggest customers when it was one of the country's leading wire rod producers. The port was handling 1.8 million tons of material at the turn of the century, but that number declined to 265,000 pounds in 2008.

During the first two months of fiscal 2017, which started on July 1, the Port of Georgetown handled just 1,517 tons of cargo. That was down from 88,521 tons moving across the terminal during the same period a year earlier.

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