We’ve been talking about the need to dredge Georgetown’s port for years. Sunday’s editorial suggests now it’s time to get past the talking stage.
Imagine yourself as a visitor at the baseball diamond at Georgetown’s Morgan Park, the Florida-shaped peninsula that makes up the city’s southeastern point. It is a cool fall afternoon. The sun is shining, a fresh breeze comes off the nearby water, and at some point during the afternoon you gaze across the channel.
If you look west from your perch on Bay Street, you’ll see the houses in the distance across the way, or at least their docks jutting into the water. In between will be the final leg of the Sampit River, the home stretch for boats headed to the Port of Georgetown. At this section, the river is about 1,000 feet wide and sedate (most days) as it joins the Great Pee Dee, Black and Waccamaw Rivers just over your shoulder on their collective way to Winyah Bay and then the ocean.
The scene will look familiar to many in Georgetown, and on the surface, not much has changed in recent years. But underneath, the river’s bottom has gotten steadily closer to the surface. As silt has worked its way down the Sampit, it has settled in the channel, particularly in the curve of the island Lafayette Park, where the Sampit makes a sharp turn south toward the ocean.
The last survey of Georgetown’s port channels, conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers on July 11, found that at low tide some parts of the Sampit River channel are only about 9 feet deep. That’s just a third of the channel’s authorized depth and a major reason why port supporters have been justifiably alarmed for the future of the port.
But despite their alarm and years of handwringing, help has been slow to arrive from either federal or state sources. To put it bluntly, the port has simply been too small to gather much attention in either realm. With that in mind, the decision by Georgetown leaders to convene their own group to devise a solution was both welcome and overdue.
We had hopes that the group would mark an important turning point in the years-long struggle to return the port to its former prominence. At last, it seemed, local leaders realized that thinking happy thoughts and waiting for outside help to magically appear will not be enough.
“The idea that money is going to fall from the sky to fix our problem is crazy. It’s not going to happen,” said Tim Tilley, the task force’s reasonable-sounding chairman. “We can’t keep being dependent on someone from another area to have the same interest in problems we have locally.”
But unfortunately, it appears the group has simply changed the focus of its hope for salvation. Rather than wait for federal money to “fall from the sky,” the task force is now waiting for that same money to fall from state or corporate coffers. Neither of those possibilities is likely.
The state continues to struggle through one of its toughest budget eras in recent history, leaving no extra money lying around to spend on dredging ports. As for corporate help, corporations are formed to make money, and the prospect of doing that by dredging the Georgetown port is hard to see, at least in the short term. It would require a massive increase in business or a similar decrease in transportation costs for a company to justify spending $32 million on a project estimated to take three years and then another $5 million to $6 million a year in maintenance costs.
That’s a big hurdle to overcome, particularly when companies can choose from competing ports just south in Charleston or north in Wilmington.
So where does that leave port boosters? Two options present themselves. First, the group could realize that outside money will not miraculously appear and instead develop a plan to fund the work themselves. If the county feels the project is important enough to its economy to justify the expense, the taxpayer-funded RIDE programs in Horry County could provide an example to follow.
A second option, which appears to already be under consideration, would be to accept that dredging will not occur and plan for that eventuality. Consultant David Brandes, who was hired by Georgetown County to study business prospects for the port, is developing ideas for marketing the port at its current depth. The prospect of an undredged port – and Brandes’ study, when finished – deserves consideration.
As each year passes without action, the situation worsens. Georgetown’s leaders have spent enough time alerting us all to the problem they face. We have had enough years of blind hope that it would be fixed by an outside force.
Now is the time for reality and practicality. Now is the time for them to take ownership of their problem and either craft their own plan for fixing it or their own plan for living with it.