Savannah's comeback Port: Going out and finding a greater diversity of cargo and steamship lines has helped the port of Savannah battle its way from the brink of ruin to prosperity.

June 02, 1996|By Suzanne Wooton | Suzanne Wooton,SUN STAFF

SAVANNAH, GA. — SAVANNAH, Ga.-- It was the defining moment for the port of Savannah. Ten years ago, its largest steamship line, U.S. Lines, went out of business, almost overnight robbing the South Atlantic's star port of more than a third of its cargo.

Along the docks here, hundreds of jobs vanished. The bankrupt carrier left a trail of debt tallying more than $2 million to the Georgia Ports Authority. And the ripple effect of the company's demise prompted other steamship lines to shift their service to Charleston, S.C., Savannah's nemesis to the north.

Yet, traumatic as it was, the death of U.S. Lines created a defensive psyche in this historic city. Vowing to never again become so vulnerable to one line, Georgia Ports Authority officials set out to attract a greater diversity of cargo and steamship lines.

A decade later, Savannah has rebuilt itself into the largest break-bulk port on the East Coast, with substantial gains in container business as well.

"It's been almost like a phoenix coming up from the ashes," said William S. Ansley Jr., president of Samuel Shapiro & Co. Inc., a customs broker and freight forwarder headquartered in Baltimore, with offices in Savannah. "It was pretty glum down there."

In large measure, Savannah's comeback was spearheaded by a booming economy in the Southeast, with the port capitalizing on the growth of massive new distribution centers, automobile plants and other manufacturing businesses. This summer, Savannah is the primary port of entry for Olympic Games equipment, such as yachts, arriving from places throughout the world.

But its success also stemmed from an intense focus on luring cargo, known as break bulk, that doesn't travel in huge steel containers. It expanded its automobile-processing facilities in nearby Brunswick and stole auto business from the port of Jacksonville, Fla. And it parlayed Georgia products, such as timber and clay, into a booming export market.

"They have been pretty wise in keeping their eye on the break-bulk market and building facilities for it," said Kathleen Broadwater, director of strategic planning and development for the Maryland Port Administration and a former consultant to the Port of Savannah.

"Savannah was motivated by the recognition that they would not be the be-all, end-all port for containers," she said.

With major container lines abandoning the port of Baltimore, Maryland port officials have been forced to deal with the same reality. Like Savannah, Baltimore is targeting niche cargoes, such as fruit, and earmarking money for facilities such as a refrigerated warehouse. Baltimore already is the second largest break-bulk port on the East Coast, largely because of its heavy volume of automobiles.

Because of the curvature of the East Coast, Savannah -- 17 miles from the ocean -- is the most inland port, lying directly south of Cleveland where Interstates 95 and 16 converge. While both Jacksonville and Charleston compete fiercely for cargo in the populous Atlanta area, Savannah touts its proximity to Georgia's capital -- and claims favorite son rights as well.

"There's only one Atlanta, and she's our state capital, not theirs," says Doug J. Marchand, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority for the past two years.

If the port of Savannah doesn't have a lock on the business coming and going to Atlanta, it certainly does on the statehouse. More often than not, the promise of port-related jobs for state residents has been persuasive with Georgia politicians who control the purse strings.

"It's brought them a lot of mileage in state legislature to say 'we're doing this for Georgia business,' " said Broadwater.

Since 1991 alone, Georgia lawmakers have authorized more than $100 million in low-interest, general obligation bonds to buy cranes and other equipment and to dredge and widen the Savannah River. In addition, the state shared with the federal government the $86 million cost of replacing the Eugene Talmadge Memorial Bridge over the Savannah River, and it is currently building an identical span in Brunswick.

Perhaps more than any single investment, the Savannah bridge -- visible from city's famed tree-lined squares and marketplaces -- is a monument to Georgia's commitment to the port. Before the bridge was constructed, giant container ships were forced to hinge their masts to sail under the bridge. Larger ships avoided Savannah altogether. And the port held little hope of ever luring the mega-carriers of the future.

While Georgians squabbled endlessly over what to name the span (ultimately retaining the name of their former U.S. senator over another famous son, James Earl Carter), they quibbled little about the need for the bridge, which offers 185 feet of vertical clearance for vessels entering the harbor.

"People in Savannah know damn well the port is important," says Robert L. Harrison, president of Stevens Shipping & Terminal Co. in Savannah. "It's an integral part of the city."

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