What I Learned At the Port of Savannah

Last week, I traveled as part of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce’s Intercity Study Mission to Atlanta and Savannah. As nice as the visit to Atlanta was, the trip for me was all about Savannah…in particular, the Port of Savannah. You know the Port of Savannah: it’s the port that’s going to literally take all of the cargo that comes to the West Coast and reroute it through the newly widened Panama Canal, leaving our ports empty and barren.

OK, well, maybe not that bad. But there is certainly a lot of concern that a newly widened Panama Canal will be an attractive alternative for some shipping that might otherwise come to the West Coast. And, combined with the increased pressure from Canadian ports, it’s yet another competitive pressure that concerns those of us who see Washington’s ports as a vital economic and trade resource that we need to do as much as possible to support.

At the Port of Savannah, we heard an impressive presentation from Curtis Foltz, the Executive Director of the Georgia Ports Authority (the state agency that collectively manages all of Georgia’s ports), on their success and their plans for the future. Luckily, I was serving as a secret agent, there in Savannah to ferret out their secrets and bring them back to Washington so that we can ensure our own port competitiveness. And here are my three major takeaways:

1) “They Love Us Because We’re Not Downtown”: Mr. Foltz made this point at least three or four times during his presentation – the folks in Savannah are supportive of the Port not only because it’s such a great economic generator but because it doesn’t get in their way on a daily basis. The Port of Savannah isn’t in downtown Savannah near any of the beautiful waterfront activities, but rather a few miles away such that ships and, more importantly, trucks never have to impede commuters or tourists.

The Port of Seattle doesn’t have that luxury, and we’ve seen the friction that causes between those who want to preserve a working waterfront in Seattle and those who would like to see certain areas of Seattle’s waterfront converted to residential, commercial and entertainment purposes. Long-term investments in protecting the Port of Seattle’s freight mobility are essential to maintaining competitiveness, whether that’s limiting development or investing significant resources in mitigation that ensures new development doesn’t harm trade and maritime activities.

2) “What’s Good For the Port Is Good for the Business Community”: This was another of Mr. Foltz’s great quotes, but it wasn’t surprising to hear. During the entire Chamber trip through Atlanta and Savannah, every business person was singing from the same songbook about how the corporate community is engaged, collaborative and acting in concert – whether it’s about supporting a new transportation investment tax or the state’s growing higher education system. Their local chambers know what’s good for business, and they’re not shy about loudly and actively pressing for those priorities…such as investing in deepening for the Port of Savannah to accommodate larger ships coming through the Panama Canal.

As I mentioned above, the Port is one of the leading economic drivers for the Savannah region and the state of Georgia…which people know, appreciate and understand the need to invest in. And here is a totally unsubstantiated statement based on my own humble opinion: most people in the state of Washington – and particularly in the Puget Sound – don’t fully appreciate just how important our ports are to the economy. I mean this not only in terms of overall economic impact, but also the understanding of our ports as preservers of family wage jobs, as a key gateway for the major corporations here to conduct their business and as essential to our economic future. I’m not sure how we got into this position, but it seems to me that we in Washington could be more effectively in loudly and proudly supporting our ports.

3) “We Love Logistics”: OK, that’s not actually a quote…it’s really UPS’ advertising slogan. But it’s also a statement that the Georgia Ports Authority probably has made. You can tell because of their commitment to developing the infrastructure necessary to be a world-class logistics hub; they invest not only in building their port terminals and deepening their rivers but also by building new highway extensions that maximize freight mobility and making investments in distribution and warehouse facilities throughout the state.

If Washington state is going to continue to be a logistics hub, we need to make sure that we have ALL the infrastructure necessary to facilitate that goal. The Ports of Seattle and Tacoma have discussed the possibility, for example, of developing a shared warehouse and distribution facility which would be a resource not only for large port customers but also for smaller local companies engaged in international trade. And how about making sure that funding for SR 167 & 509 are in the next major state transportation package, or coming together as a state to support a new Columbia River Crossing?

There are some clear things that we can do to ensure that the ports of Washington state maintain their competitiveness. Because, even with competition from British Columbia and the Panama Canal, our ports can be major economic drivers for the foreseeable future…if we support them.

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