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Posted: May 27, 2014 10:07 p.m.

Savannah port deepening boosts Newton Co.

Savannah’s international shipping port is deepening, and while the coastal city is best known as a vacation spot for locals, its effects on Newton County’s economy could be much larger.

What’s happening and why?

After years of studies and funding delays, the federal government finally approved spending $492 million — the state will chip in $214 million or more — to dredge and deepen the Savannah River to allow larger ships to access the U.S.’s fourth busiest trade port.

The river will be deepened from 42 feet to 47 feet.

That five foot difference is a big one, because the Panama Canal is also being deepened, and much larger ships — triple the size in some cases, as long as 1,100 feet with the capacity of 13,000 boxcars — are about to make their way to the U.S.’s east coast.

If the Savannah River isn’t deepened, it wouldn’t be able to accommodate the larger ships, which would make their way north to the ports in Norfolk, Virginia and Baltimore that are already large enough.

How does it affect Newton County?

Industries looking to relocate to the Southeast are attracted by quick access to a major international trade port.
In fact, about half of the industries that have considered Newton County this year did so in large part because of its access to the port — Covington is about 225 miles from Savannah and the route is a pretty straight shot.

“In the last seven months, everyone has been talking about the ports,” Newton County’s industrial recruiter Dave Bern said. “Love or hate the politics, we wouldn’t be talking about these opportunities (without the upcoming deepening).”

Bernd said one industrial prospect is willing to relocate its entire business to Georgia from the western U.S. because of the reduced transportation costs to get equipment to its plant.

“With the price of fuel and where it’s going, the closer they can locate to the port, the better,” Bernd said, as some projections show fuel costs doubling in the future.

Another prospect is considering relocation from Canada, because Canadian ports sometimes have to close in the winter.

The port isn’t only important for companies importing goods or parts from other countries, but also for companies exporting to the rest of the world; Savannah’s business is about 50-50.

Ports connected to rail lines — a CSX line goes right through the county — are a big draw to corporations.
Some local industries ship goods through the ports, but Bernd didn’t know how big of an impact the deepening would have on them, though the increased cost efficiency of larger ships should help all companies involved.

County well positioned

While Covington is only slightly closer to Savannah than Atlanta, Bernd said the benefit of avoiding Atlanta’s traffic congestion plays a big role.

At the same time, Covington scores better than Macon because it’s still close enough to Atlanta to pull from its vast 2-million-plus workforce base.

While a lot of companies locate closer to Savannah, Bernd said Newton County can also boast that it’s effectively out of hurricane range, leading to cheaper insurance costs.

And Newton County won’t just benefit from the Savannah port deepening, but it could also get a boost from the deepening of the Charleston, South Carolina port — which is only 40 miles further than Savannah — Bernd said.

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