LUMBERTON — With both gubernatorial candidates saying they would not pursue construction of the proposed North Carolina International Port Terminal in Southport if elected, Robeson County’s chances of benefiting by becoming a hub for distribution warehouses appear gone.
“The growth of Southeastern North Carolina depends on a deep-water port and the port in Wilmington,” said Greg Cummings, Robeson County’s industrial developer. “The wisest investment we can make is in the ports. I’m very adamant about it. If we are going to create economic growth, we need ports. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see it.”
Cummings said that business recruitment and job creation in Robeson and surrounding counties rests on a deep-water port that can handle the large container ships that bring goods to the United States from China, Europe, Southeast Asia and Central America. Because of its proximity to Interstates 95 and 74, and its closeness to the port in Wilmington, Cummings said Robeson County is ideally positioned for the location of large distribution warehouses to serve companies transporting products between the port and the markets they serve.
“Just look at the ports in Charleston and Savannah,” Cummings said. “Fifty to 100 miles out you see massive warehouse distribution centers, buildings that are 500,000 to 1.5 million square feet … . That could happen here.”
The idea for the creation of the megaport, to be built on 600 acres owned by the N.C. State Ports Authority and located between the former Progress Energy Brunswick Nuclear Power Plant and the Sunny Point Military Munitions Port, was conceived in 2006. The estimated $3 billion project was put on hold in 2010 when the state legislature did not provide funding for a proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study.
But gubernatorial candidates Walter Dalton, a Democrat, and Pat McCrory, a Republican, both oppose the plan.
Dalton, now lieutenant governor, reportedly has cited the appearance of lack of federal government support, including North Carolina’s congressional delegation, and opposition from the state General Assembly among his reasons for not pursuing construction of the port. The recently approved state budget for 2012-13 includes language prohibiting any state spending for the proposed N.C. International Terminal, and Dalton contends that the project — that would take years to construct — would cost as much as $6 billion in seaside and landside improvements.
Dalton also uses data from the recently released N.C. Maritime Strategy Study, which looks at ways to make state ports more competitive, to boost his argument against a megaport. He instead says that efforts should be focused on improving existing ports, including Wilmington and Morehead City, and expanding exports by creating niche markets.
According to a report in the Wilmington Star News, McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, does not believe that the marketplace would support another port. As governor, a McCrory spokesperson said, he would create and implement a strategy for the existing ports in Wilmington and Morehead City.
Robeson County and Lumberton were among 10 local governments that almost a year ago passed resolutions calling for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a feasibility study of the proposed port. Caswell Beach, Boiling Springs and Bald Head Island are among coastal towns opposing any feasibility study or construction of the deep water port.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Mike McIntyre, a Democrat from Lumberton, said in a statement Wednesday that McIntyre does not support the project for several reasons.
“Congressman McIntyre does not support this project because of several concerns, including the lack of commitment as well as lack of funding from the state Legislature; economic concerns (potential cost of $6 billion during a federal deficit and when new projects are generally not being considered by the Appropriations Committee); national security concerns; environmental concerns; and infrastructure concerns, which have not been resolved by the state,” said Dean Mitchell, McIntyre’s chief of staff. “Congressman McIntyre has been a long-time champion of the Wilmington Port, and he is committed to helping the existing port grow and expand to increase business opportunities which will lead to more jobs for our area.”
State Sen. Michael Walters, who currently represents Robeson and Hoke counties, told The Robesonian that while he would like to see the megaport become a reality, that is unlikely in the near future, especially since the Governor’s Logistics Task Force, chaired by Dalton, is recommending not moving forward on the project
“But we need to give the ports at Wilmington and Morehead City the infrastructure they need,” Walters said. “It’s a way to grow the economy and build for the future.”
Steve Yost, head of the 11-member county economic development organization North Carolina Southeast, said that it appears the megaport project will be “stagnant at least for awhile.”
“I hope whoever becomes governor will seek a re-evaluation of the whole project. Maybe a feasibility study can be done to see if it (megaport) is needed by the state,” Yost said. “Everything (data) we see from industries and logistics say that industries have to have deeper ports to accommodate larger ships…It’s no rocket science, but expensive critical infrastructure is needed … It should be considered as an investment to build the economy.”
Bo Biggs, a local Robeson County political observer and businessman from Lumberton, said that the decision by both gubernatorial candidates not to support the construction of a megaport is an indication of the state’s poor economy.
“It tells something about the economy when candidates of both parties agree,” Biggs said. “The price of the megaport is going to be substantial, even with private equity making up a considerable part of the funding. With the state of the economy, tight state funds and a (federal) deficit, the project would not be feasible.”
Biggs attributed such strong support for the project in Robeson and surrounding counties to the need for jobs.
“A megaport is a bit of a reach to ever become reality, but everyone inland is desperate for jobs. We’ll grab at anything,” he said. “There is always the hope that some industry will be landed in the area of the I-95 and I-74 corridor, with the the interstates being used to distribute products … . This (megaport) was our Hail Mary pass. We’re desperate for something here.”
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at 910-272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org.