The seaports about 165 miles southeast of Middle Georgia had a record-breaking amount of cargo moving through their docks during the past fiscal year.
Some of that cargo was headed to or from midstate facilities.
“It’s a significant number because Tractor Supply, Bass Pro Shops, Kohl’s, YKK and all the kaolin companies all ship through the ports,” said Pat Topping, senior vice president of the Macon Economic Development Commission.
YKK USA Inc. in Macon is a midstate company that imports and exports through the ports. It is the zipper subsidiary of YKK Corporation of America based in Marietta, the U.S. headquarters for Japan-based YKK Corp.
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YKK in Macon “deals with approximately 400 containers ... per year of imports via the Savannah Port and approximately 400 containers ... per year that are exported via the port,” Jessica Kennett Cork, director of public relations and corporate communications for YKK in Marietta, said in an email. “So the Port of Savannah is vital to our business.”
The ports in Savannah and Brunswick handled 31.69 million tons of cargo during the 2015 fiscal year that ended June 30. That’s their greatest tonnage ever and an increase of nearly 8 percent from a year ago.
The figure includes a whopping 3.6 million units of containerized cargo -- giant metal boxes used to ship consumer goods from electronics to frozen chickens -- that moved through the Port of Savannah. That means containerized imports and exports jumped 17 percent from last year, when Savannah surpassed 3 million container units for the first time.
The increase was partly due to labor issues on the West Coast.
“It was a pretty amazing year for us,” said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the ports authority.
Savannah benefited this past year from a labor dispute that was blamed for slowdowns at West Coast ports such as Los Angeles and Long Beach, California. Shippers ended up diverting cargo to the East Coast to avoid delays, and Georgia ports officials say Savannah was able to take on the extra business more efficiently than most.
It is unknown how many new customers will continue to use Georgia’s ports long term.
The Ports Authority also partners with an inland rail terminal in Cordele that serves southwest Georgia, southern Alabama and western Florida. This week plans for an inland terminal in Chatsworth is expected to serve points northward.
The ports give midstate economic development folks some leverage when dealing with companies considering several locations for their business.
“The Georgia ports are one of the tremendous advantages that we have over other communities,” Topping said. “Anything that increases their volume only presents more opportunities for us.”
A study is in the works to help clarify how the midstate might be able to take advantage of the current traffic and expected traffic increase to and from the ports.
The Middle Georgia Regional Commission received a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to study the feasibility of creating a multimodal logistics and manufacturing hub in Middle Georgia, Topping said.
“Bibb, Houston (counties) and the 21st Century Partnership all got together to endorse that application,” he said.
Currently much of the products coming in the ports are put on trucks that go through the midstate to a hub in Atlanta where the merchandise is unloaded, remixed and put on other trucks that return to distribution centers in Macon, he said.
“(The study) will help identify the feasibility of how we can take advantage of the increase in traffic from the Savannah ports due to what’s going on now and due to what happens after the deepening of the (Savannah) River,” he said. “It could be a tremendous opportunity for us.”
The results of the study are expected to be available in September.
Other development authorities in Middle Georgia boast of the ports’ advantages.
The Academy Sports + Outdoors distribution center in Twiggs County is a major port user, Topping said.
“With our strategic position midway between the Georgia Ports in Savannah and Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport, your business will have an immediate advantage,” according to the website for the Development Authority of the City of Jeffersonville & Twiggs County. “Highway 96 is under construction and is being widened to a four-lane highway which will connect I-75 and I-16 within a short drive.”
These roads intersect in Middle Georgia with easy access to Robins Air Force Base and the Middle Georgia Regional Airport.
The impact to the midstate of the current Savannah River deepening is yet to be determined, Topping said. The project to deepen the river from 42 feet to 47 feet officially began in January and will allow larger and more efficient ships to use the harbor.
Imports made up 54 percent of the Georgia ports’ business in fiscal 2015, while 46 percent of cargo was exported.
Break-bulk cargo including automobile and heavy machinery finished the fiscal year up 7.6 percent at a total 2.8 million tons. That included a record 714,021 units of autos and machinery, most of which moved through the Port of Brunswick. Liquid and dry bulk goods such as vegetable oil and wood pellets used to fuel power plants overseas were up 8 percent from the previous year, for a total of 2.9 million tons.
Foltz, with the authority, said the extra business led to the Georgia Ports Authority recording its highest revenues ever -- more than $356 million.
Savannah has the fourth-busiest container port in the U.S. On the East Coast, it ranks No. 2 after the combined Port of New York and New Jersey.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.