The choice of Orangeburg County for a mammoth logistics hub is a sign of a coming change in shipping patterns sending a new wave of cargo to the Southeast.
Jafza International, a subsidiary of Dubai World, expects to draw at least $600 million in investments and 5,500 jobs to the site by 2015.
That timetable will put it in place as a widening of the Panama Canal is scheduled to be completed, said Chuck Heath, Jafza's managing director. That will allow more and bigger ships from Asia to reach the East Coast.
"The volume of cargo out of Asia right now can't be handled by the West Coast. That's a natural for the Southeast," he said.
The growth also will be coming from the other direction.
The shortest route to North America for goods coming out of China, Japan and Korea is across the Pacific. But for areas south of Vietnam, the shortest route is the other direction: through the Suez Canal and across the Atlantic.
The growth of southern Asia, including India, Pakistan and Thailand, will benefit the Southeast, said Mike Zachary, a ports consultant with Raleigh-based Tompkins Associates.
Zachary called India a "sleeping giant" with "the potential to be bigger than China."
Last week, Jafza also announced plans to build six logistics hubs in India ranging in size from 700 to 4,500 acres.
"We will be promoting the heck out of Orangeburg to our Indian clients," Heath said. "It has all the potential to become a future gateway to North America."
Eight years ago, India was the 19th-largest user of the port of Charleston, with about 17,000 containers. Last year, it ranked third with more than 100,000 containers, said Byron Miller, spokesman for the S.C. State Ports Authority, the public agency that owns and runs Charleston's and Georgetown's port facilities.
The only countries generating more traffic were Germany, the port's largest customer, and China.
But Charleston's weak point is its shortage of distribution facilities, a factor influenced by the area's high growth rate and high land prices, Miller said.
Heath said a key part of the Orangeburg County site's value is its location near major ports and near the center of the Southeast, which has not yet reached the level of highway congestion that has crippled ports in the Northeast and southern California.
Heath said a larger flow of trade is inevitable.
"The question is: Who has the vision to accommodate it?" he said. "We have always put supply before demand."
PORT OF CHARLESTON
The port of Charleston handled the equivalent of 1.9 million 20-foot-long containers last year and is capable of handling as many as 2.6 million per year.
When the first phase of the port's expansion in North Charleston is completed by 2013, it will be able to handle as many as 3.5 million containers per year.
A second phase to be completed by 2025 will increase capacity to 4 million containers.