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Deal Approved For New N.C. Port

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RALEIGH, N.C. — A council of the state's top elected officials cleared the way Tuesday for the $30 million purchase of a 600-acre tract near Southport that planners hope to transform into one of the largest international ports on the East Coast.

"We are very early in the process, but this is a key step toward our goal of building a major new economic engine for North Carolina," Tom Eagar, the chief executive officer of the state Ports Authority, said after the Council of State approved the deal. "The N.C. International Port will provide a missing link, a gigantic boost to economic development to attract the major manufacturing and assembly plants which require access to deep-water port facilities with global service coverage."

The port will cost an estimated $1 billion and won't be in operation for eight to 10 years. Eventually, it will help create 50,000 jobs statewide and generate $50 million in local and state tax revenue, Eagar estimated.

Authority leaders believe it will eventually compete with ports in Norfolk, Va., Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C.

"I want to see this succeed immensely, but I become concerned when we have these 'pie in the sky' statements," said state Labor Secretary Cherie Berry

Berry said she doesn't want another Global Transpark, which hasn't performed well despite $140 million in taxpayer investment. The new port plan would take a private shipping partner, plus a much larger federal and state investment for dredging, as well as difficult environmental permits.

"It's going to be a cautious approach," said Gov. Mike Easley. "We're going to make sure we know what we're doing, but we're taking that first step now."

The authority has already made a $3 million down payment on the property that's owned by Pfizer Inc. It expects to complete the deal in late March, Eagar said. The authority must then begin an environmental impact study of the property that's along the Cape Fear River. The authority is also looking for a private partner to help develop the port.

The Council of State includes Easley, Lt. Gov. Beverly Perdue and eight other elected officials. Easley owns a house in Southport and cautioned port officials to move carefully.

"You're going to have to keep us posted every step of the way," Easley said.

State Auditor Les Merritt approved the land purchase along with the rest of the council, but worried about the proposed state partnership with a private business.

"We don't always do as well as some businesses do," Merritt said. "I need to be assured, as this project is planned, that this way of doing it is better than the government just leasing the whole thing to a private company to run."