Booming Savannah Port Sees Trade Tensions as Just a Hiccup

Posted May 18, 2018 8:03 p.m. EDT

SAVANNAH, Ga. — Savannah’s ocean ports feature skyscraping silver cranes that stand at attention on the water’s edge. Container ships stretch the length of four football fields, with 40-foot containers stacked behind them like multicolored Lego bricks.

But an empty patch of freshly bulldozed dirt is the first spot at the sprawling Garden City Terminal that Griffith Lynch, the executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, wants to show off.

That is the site of a new $127 million rail depot that will enable double-decker trains as long as the National Mall to be loaded right at the port. It is one piece of a larger vision that Lynch contends Savannah is uniquely positioned to achieve: Shippers here will be able to deliver goods to Midwestern cities in the time it takes other ports to finish heaving cargo off a boat.

The salesmanship is not just boasting. The nation’s fourth-busiest gateway, the state-run Savannah port has tripled its traffic since 2000, bathing the region in tens of thousands of jobs. It has helped draw the manufacturing operations of foreign automakers to the region, and has a reputation for big ideas and nitty-gritty efficiency.

“I repeatedly hear that this is the best port in the country,” said George T. Powers, president and chief executive of TradePort Logistics, who has been talking to scores of shippers as he scouts business for a new 100-door loading facility and a 650,000-square-foot fulfillment center he’s building near the port.

That local confidence in the port’s potential has apparently helped insulate some of Savannah’s business leaders and workers — whose livelihoods depend on global commerce — from anxiety over rising tensions with trading partners.

When asked about the back and forth with key trading partners seeking exemptions from hefty steel and aluminum tariffs recently imposed by President Donald Trump, hardly anyone at the port or the surrounding warehouses and transit points said they felt compelled to closely track the details.

Instead of a trade war, businesses talked of a trade hiccup.

“We feel very comfortable that this will just continue to grow,” said Rebecca George Ogden, president of PortFresh Logistics, a 100,000-square-foot cold-storage and packing facility for produce that opened last year, contending that U.S. appetites will carry the day. “The demand is so great. I really believe Americans are going to want their grapes in January and their citrus in June, this year-round availability that we’re accustomed to.”

The optimism is reflected in the shortage of industrial space — a vacancy rate of 0.52 percent compared with the average 5 percent in a healthy market, according to Colliers International, a real estate services company. Tracts of land that the port puts on the market are “just gobbled up,” said Clifford H. Dales, a principal of Colliers.

Whatever concern about tariffs exists, it has not had an impact on business, he said. “I really don’t hear much about it,” Dales said about local and out-of-town developers.

The port’s fortunes have swung back and forth since the era when the world price for cotton was set in Savannah’s trading post. Like other gateways up and down the East Coast, Savannah has bet heavily on attracting a hefty share of the supersize container ships routed through the enlarged Panama Canal and the Suez Canal. There is fierce competition for shippers, as well as for the additional millions of federal dollars needed to deepen waterways and create a speedy transportation network. But Savannah is poised to emerge as a winner.

“Savannah has become a magnet for containers,” said Walter Kemmsies, an economist at Jones Lang LaSalle, who has advised more than a dozen U.S. ports on development.

Savannah does have a few distinct assets, among them location. Its southern latitude disguises just how far west the shipping channel reaches — far enough to catch a plumb line dropped from Cleveland.

Another is that in Savannah, unlike other major ports in the country that lease to different terminal operators, the ports authority runs the whole show.

That makes it easier to get containers from Point A to Point B. Truckers have a single check-in point when they enter and exit, and 9,700 feet of contiguous docking space. Several ships can dock on the same day, and the mechanics, crane operators and drivers working directly for the port can be quickly deployed where they are most needed.

In New Jersey, for instance, a trucker might make only one trip if the ship unloads at rush hour, Kemmsies said. In Savannah, warehouse owners said truckers can average four to six.

The result is that this southern port in a conservative, pro-business state — home to the first city to outsource its entire municipal government — has a competitive advantage that other ports lack. It is run solely by the government. “A private owner would not have the same outlook,” Powers of TradePort Logistics said. “The port’s mission is not to create profit for themselves but to provide services and create jobs for the region.”

This approach extends to the transportation hub, which is undergoing bridge, road and interchange modernizations designed to streamline port traffic. To finance the increased capacity on Georgia’s roads, the state passed a gas tax indexed to inflation and fuel efficiency.

The port’s coordinated investments are helping it lure ships away from the West Coast — which is more vulnerable to trade tensions with China — and nip at the heels of the Port of New York and New Jersey, its biggest rival in the East.

“Infrastructure drives jobs,” said Ogden of PortFresh Logistics. “Georgia gets it.”

Her company’s warehouse, cold enough for workers to wear knitted ski masks, is 15 miles from the Garden City Terminal off Interstate 16 on a 182-acre parcel bought from the county and designated for port-related development. Aiming to double its building space within the next year, the company plans to expand its 120-person workforce.

Nearby is a Mitsubishi Hitachi plant that makes gas and steam turbines. Its location 6 miles from the port was a key factor in the decision to set up manufacturing there, said Peter Mierke, the plant’s general manager. The state and local governments paid for a rail spur to deliver the giant turbines directly from the warehouse to the docks. The area has become a manufacturing powerhouse, and 10 of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the country are in the South.

“An enormous amount of foreign direct investment has been flowing into to the old Confederacy,” said Jock O’Connell, an international trade adviser at Beacon Economics, a consulting firm based in Los Angeles. “The industrialization of the South and the population growth that has gone with it has created a market that is ripe for service by maritime trade.”

Foreign car companies like Toyota, Mercedes and BMW — the nation’s largest auto exporter — have set up factories in the Southeast in the past two decades, and their vast network of suppliers followed.

Kia opened a factory in Georgia in 2009. Part of the draw was the port, which was already knee deep in its infrastructure overhaul. The company was impressed, said Corinne Hodges, a spokeswoman for Kia, with “how quickly can a truck get in and out and how fast can freight get off the boat and get its way into the plant.” Savannah has also benefited from some unanticipated assistance. Labor troubles caused a monthslong slowdown at the nation’s largest port complex in Los Angeles, stranding cargo on ships and frustrating retailers with tight deadlines. The episode pushed importers and shipping lines to diversify their points of entry and better acquainted them with the efficiencies of Savannah’s port.

That may be why union leaders here emphasize that no matter what happens, they intend to keep the cargo moving.

“We don’t think the administration is out to hurt anybody” with its trade policy, said Timothy S. Mackey, president of the 1,500-member Local 1414 of the International Longshoremen’s Association. “Trump is a competitive guy, a businessman. He wants the best deal.”

“But we’ll do what we need to do,” he said. “The world keeps moving.”