Dredging the Georgetown port could take one step toward reality Wednesday if the U.S. House passes the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.
Language was inserted in the bill by U.S. Rep. Tom Rice, R-S.C., that would remove a bureaucratic benchmark that prevented the project from getting federal money. Rice is a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
The bill that is expected to get to the House floor Wednesday sets aside a portion of the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund for work on ports with less than 1 million tons of shipping a year.
Rice said that Georgetown used to surpass the benchmark, but its tonnage dropped below it during the closure of the Georgetown steel mill. Now that the mill has reopened, the tonnage has returned, but the port's channel has silted so that boats can't deliver cargo.
Rice said the steel mill gets ore shipments from overseas that could boost the port's tonnage over the minimum. Now, the shipments go to Wilmington, N.C., and by rail to Georgetown.
"Since the port has silted in, they can't ship it in," he said, "and since they can't ship it in, they can't get the minimum tonnage [for] federal funding]."
The bill's passage could take care of that roadblock, but Rice advised Georgetown officials to quickly make their case to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for some of the rerouted money.
The bill also has a provision that would allow the Charleston port to begin work sooner on expansion to accommodate the larger ships that will come from the Far East through the Panama Canal when its widening is completed.
Bill Crowther, executive director of the Georgetown Alliance for Economic Development, said it has been estimated that it would cost $33 million to dredge the Georgetown port, a relatively small amount when considering that larger ports could spend hundreds of millions on necessary dredging.
"A small piece of the pie compared to other projects," he said.
In return, Georgetown could expect a $30 million annual boost to its economy, he said.
Crowther said there are already businesses now shipping to and from ports in Wilmington and Charleston that say they would switch to the Georgetown port if it becomes available. That, in turn, would spur more industrial development, he said.
Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce president Brian Tucker said a working port would give Horry and Georgetown counties a benefit that neither have because of the lack of an interstate highway.
"It puts a tool in our bag that even cities with an interstate don't have," he said.
Fred Richardson, board chairman of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corp., said a working port in Georgetown could be a big drawing card in recruiting new businesses and industries to the area.
He said that it further could be a natural port to receive many of the products that would be made at the Bucksport Marine Park, which is now under development. The Marine Park is planned as one of the largest inland industry sites to rely heavily on barges of transporting goods.
Rice noted that the WRRDA is the first to go through the House since earmarks were banned.
The act authorizes spending on 26 waterways and harbor improvement projects nationwide. They are not earmarks because they were not inserted into the bill by individual members of Congress.
It also provides for non-federal financial contributions to port and waterway projects. Rice said that it is feasible that the Georgetown port could be dredged with private funds that would then be repaid from port revenue.
Rice said he has spent a lot of time with officials at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and he was confident they would be aware of Georgetown's needs when they get an application for funds.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.