By Maria Saporta
Little did we know that the Savannah Port really could be known as Atlanta’s port.
That’s what Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, told members of the Rotary Club of Atlanta on Monday.
Of the $15.2 billion of trade that went through the port in 2010, “ 60 percent of it — $8.1 billion — came from metro Atlanta,” Foltz said.
“We are almost branded as an Atlanta port,” Foltz said to the gathering of Atlantans.
In fact, more than one-fifth of Savannah’s total trade — $3.6 billion — came from just one county — Fulton County.
Those figures probably explain why Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has become such an advocate at home and in Washington, D.C. for the deepening of the Savannah port.
Foltz went through a detailed explanation of why the deepening of the port is so important for the future of economic development in Georgia.
In one decade, the Savannah Port has gone from not even being in the top 10 ports in the country to being No. 4 in the country today, after Los Angeles, Long Beach and New York/New Jersey.
And growth at the Savannah port continues to outpace most of the other ports in the nation. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, the volume of containers increased by more than 11 percent.
But Foltz said that the expansion of the Panama Canal, which will permit the passage of super tankers, will be completed in 2014. But the Savannah Port is not deep enough to accommodate the new super tankers.
“We are at 42 feet (deep), and that’s not sustainable,” Foltz said. “Half the ships will quit coming to us if we don’t get deeper water. Most other ports are in the 50-foot range.”
Foltz said that the Georgia Ports Authority began studying a possible Savannah Harbor Expansion Project in 1996. It received Congressional authorization in 1999.
“Here we are in 2011. We’ve spent $40 million in studies,” said Foltz, clearly frustrated by the amount of time it’s taken to get the project moving. “We believe there will be a decision in May of next year — $40 million and 12 years of study.”
As proposed, the Savannah Port expansion project would deepen the port to 48 feet, which Foltz said was critical to state’s economy.
“There are very, very few new business opportunities that come to the State of Georgia looking to do business that are not interested in the port’s plans for growth,” Foltz said.
During the question-and-answer portion, Metro Atlanta Chamber President Sam Williams asked Foltz what Rotarians could do to help garner federal support for the deepening project.
Foltz said that Gov. Nathan Deal and Mayor Reed have been “fantastic,” and that the two congressmen who represent the coast — U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston and U.S. Rep. John Barrow — have been actively involved as have Georgia’s two U.S. Senators — Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson.
But Foltz said that all of the elected leaders in the state “can’t be reminded enough that this is a top priority.”
By the way, Foltz almost could have held a board meeting during Rotary. Three of the Georgia Ports Authority’s 13-member board were present at the Rotary lunch — Jim Lientz (who introduced Foltz); Jim Balloun; and Sunny Park.
Also present were Herman Russell, a former chairman of the GPA board; and Keith Mason, also a former board chairman, who was on the search committee that hired Foltz.
Foltz joined the GPA staff in 2004 as chief operating officer. He became executive director in January, 2010.