CHARLESTON, S.C. — In more than two years as president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, Jim Newsome has worked to get funding for a study of deepening the Charleston Harbor shipping channel, watched the on-again, off-again efforts with Georgia in building a joint port on the Savannah River and dealt with controversy, and a lawsuit, over Charleston’s expanded cruise industry.
But Newsome says his main concern from the time he started has been growing business and regaining Charleston’s position among East Coast ports.
“I would never have come here if I thought it was an easy job,” Newsome, who left his job as president of the American division of container line Hapag-Lloyd in the summer of 2009. “I expected our major challenge was to regrow our volume. That remains the case and that is where we are focused.”
Newsome, who had 30 years of experience in the industry, came at a time when Charleston had slipped behind the competition. Once the second-largest container port on the East Coast, Charleston fell to fourth behind New York-New Jersey, southeast Virginia and its fierce competitor Savannah, Ga.
“We lost our competitiveness,” Newsome said in a wide-ranging interview last week with The Associated Press. “We became a bit inward looking.”
Back in the 1990s, the authority announced plans to build a massive $1.2 billion Global Gateway shipping terminal on Daniel Island. But there was public opposition and state lawmakers directed the agency to build a smaller terminal, now under construction, at the old Charleston Naval Base in North Charleston.
“I think people were confused as to how we could declare such grandiose plans and then pull back on them,” Newsome said. “I think it sent a message that we weren’t serious about being in the port business more so than anyone else.”
At the same time, Savannah aggressively brought in distribution centers that could be served by its port.
“They did a great job of targeting certain segments and speaking with one voice and not really accepting no for an answer at a time when we were a bit fractured in how we looked at the port,” Newsome said.
“We lost our competitive focus but we have it back now. We are competing very diligently for all segments of business. I think we have corrected that,” he said.
Still, the troubled economy is affecting port business. During the first quarter of the fiscal year that began last July 1, the volume of cargo moving through Charleston and Georgetown increased although container volume in Charleston was flat.
Newsome repeated that Charleston, with its deep natural harbor, is the best choice among Southeastern harbors to be deepened to 50 feet to handle larger ships that will be calling after the Panama Canal is widened in 2014. A study on the deepening is under way.
As for a terminal on the Jasper County side of the Savannah River, Newsome said that, with port authorities in both South Carolina and Georgia each investing about $1 billion at existing locations, such a new terminal would not be needed, at the earliest until 2035.