Next few months crucial for Jasper Port project

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By Scott Graber

The walls of South Carolina Senate are covered with portraits — Strom Thurmond, Fritz Hollings, Clementa Pinckney, Henry Timrod and others who have made a difference in our small, often misunderstood state.

But Hugh K. Leatherman’s portrait is different.

Leatherman’s life-sized, hyper-realistic rendering features a Boeing Dreamliner behind his left shoulder; and clutched in his right hand, one sees the blueprints for the Hugh K Leatherman Ocean Terminal.

The President pro tempore of the Senate wants future senators, and any other South Carolinian who wanders into the Senate Chamber, to know that he brought Boeing to South Carolina, as well as the huge container cranes now installed at the decommissioned Navy Base in North Charleston.

But his portrait doesn’t tell the whole story.

It doesn’t reveal that the Ports Authority needed money to build the Leatherman Facility. In fact, it needed $550 million and came to the Senate seeking South Carolina’s borrowing ability.

And the portrait certainly does not reveal that there were those, like Senator Tom Davis, who were not receptive.

Tom Davis was not receptive because the South Carolina Ports Authority had announced, in 2019, that they wouldn’t be needing the proposed port in Jasper County until 2040.

Tom Davis was stung, believing this delay effectively killed the Jasper port; and one of South Carolina’s poorest counties would remain in the “Corridor of Shame.”

A delay to 2040 would effectively terminate an effort that began in the 1990s when Henry Moss, then the County Manager in Jasper, stumbled upon a lunar, almost lifeless 1500 acres of compacted Savannah River spoil.

In 2000 Moss found a private shipping firm — SSA Marine — and proposed they join with Jasper in the creation of a terminal on the north side of the Savannah River atop this billiard table.

When that agreement was announced the South Carolina Ports Authority intervened saying that it, the Ports Authority, was the only entity that could operate a port in South Carolina.

Thus began litigation.

That litigation ended in 2005 when Supreme Court said that the Ports Authority had a pre-imminent right; but if they passed on the project then Jasper County could step forward.

In 2009 the South Carolina Ports Authority and the Georgia Ports Authority — with a little push from their respective governors — agreed they would jointly develop the site when each ran out of room in Charleston and in Savannah.

But in 2018 when the South Carolina Ports Authority began actual construction at Charleston’s old Navy Base, the Georgia people decided that it was unlikely that Charleston would ever need Jasper. So they too began to look around for someplace (in Savannah) to build more capacity. They found that capacity on Hutchinson Island located just to the right of the Talmadge Bridge as one crosses over the Savannah River.

As Tom Davis watched these two expansions he knew his Jasper project, his vision, was in its last convulsive stage of life.

But when, in 2020, the South Carolina Ports Authority arrived at the Senate looking for more loot, Davis told Leatherman he would not support the requested $550 million. And there were others, senators in the Upstate and fiscal conservatives, who were not willing.

Davis said he would be willing if the Ports Authority gave their 1/2 interest in the port project to Jasper. Initially the Ports Authority said “no”, but eventually the Ports Authority said “yes.”

For the new deal to work, Georgia has to agree on becoming a partner with Jasper. And Georgia has hesitated — probably of because of the money they’ve spent on Hutchinson Island. But Hutchinson comes with its own problem — the Talmadge Bridge is too low for the new generation of container ships that will soon come calling in Savannah.

Strangely, the same problem exists for Charleston where the Cooper River Bridge (a/k/a the Arthur Ravenel Bridge) is too low for the new ships.

And, of course, this graceful barrier works to the advantage of the Jasper site — the Jasper port is seaward of the Talmadge Bridge and that means no billion-dollar replacement has to be brought into Georgia’s equation.

Now Georgia has to decide if it can work with Jasper. And Jasper has to decide if money will be involved — will it seek tax revenue? Or does the county simply want the jobs and the ancillary businesses that are sure to locate near the new port?

The next few months will be crucial. And perhaps, when they hang the Davis portrait, he will be clutching his own blueprints.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.