Private operator may be sought to run Georgetown port

A task force looking for funds to pay for dredging the Port of Georgetown will investigate what it would take to allow a private company to operate the port, instead of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, which owns and operates the facility.

The newly-formed Port Dredging Task Force held its second meeting Wednesday, with chairman Tim Tilley appealing to members to "think outside the box" in searching for long-sought dredging funds. Tilley and other task force members believe the port is underused because it is so filled with sediment that large container ships can no longer navigate the channel.

Two men with widely different backgrounds told the task force Wednesday that one possible out of the box solution for dredging the port would be to get the state government out of the business of running it.

Former Navy captain Jerry Rovner, now retired and living in Pawleys Island, told task force members that landlord ports - those owned by the government but leased to private operators - are not unusual, especially in larger facilities. Rovner said he helped set up a landlord operation for the port of Philadelphia.

"There were outside companies actually running the day-to-day operations of the port that was leased to them," Rovner said.

Louis Poggi, who spent 27 years working for the terminal management giant SSA Cooper, said Georgetown leaders have tried for years to get money for dredging from the federal and state governments and have failed.

"So why not go ahead and turn it into a leased port? Tell these people, you take care of the dredging, you bring in who you want," Poggi said.

Tilley said the idea of leasing the port to a private operator has its pros and cons, but it will be investigated by the task force. "I don't have any reason to believe that it would be better or worse," he said.

Task force member State Sen. Yancy McGill said he wasn't sold on the idea of leasing the port to a private operator, saying that politically, the proposal would be "not a pop gun, but more like a Howitzer."

Tilley suggested that another outside the box idea would be for the state to shift some cargo tonnage from the port of Charleston to Georgetown.

If at least a million tons of freight goes through Georgetown per year, it would make the port eligible for federal dredging funds through the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund. Tilley said the port is almost halfway to that million ton goal already. A cement manufacturer is projected to ship nearly 450,000 tons through Georgetown next year, so a relatively small shift of tonnage away from Charleston could potentially save the state millions of dollars that it wouldn't have to spend on dredging.

"Yes, we might create an immediate positive impact to one area and a negative economic impact to another, being a Charleston, but a little economic impact to them, because of their relative size, has very little economic impact compared to the positive impact here (in Georgetown)," he said.

To dredge the port to a depth of 29 feet, which would accommodate freighters up to 600 feet long and 40,000 tons in capacity, would cost an estimated $33.5 million, Tilley said. But one issue the task force has to face is that no one really knows how much it would cost to dredge the port.

"Two years ago, I saw a figure of $12 million. Prior to that, I saw a figure of $9 million, so I really don't know where these figures have come from," he said.

Representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been invited to the next task force meeting Oct. 17th, and should be able to help local leaders get a better idea of the true cost of dredging the port, Tilley said.