Virginia has one. Texas has a bigger one. North Carolina wants another one. Why are inland ports popular? Supporters say they’re worth millions in trade and can create hun- dreds of jobs to prepare containers for shipping. Proponents who persuaded legislators to appropriate $50,000 to study one for western North Carolina say it doesn’t matter that Wilmington, the state’s largest seaport, is 360 miles away.
Why western North Carolina? Backers say it is roughly the geographical center of the United States east of the Mississippi. The trump card is its transportation network. Clinchcross Crossing is a major intersection of north-south CSX and east-west Norfolk Southern railroads. It’s on the east side of Marion, 34 miles east of Asheville. Interstates 26 and 40 intersect in Asheville, 26 and 85 cross near Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., and 26 and 81 meet near Johnson City, Tenn. All are trucking hubs.
Karen Fox, spokeswoman for the N.C. State Ports Authority in Wilmington, says inland ports allow manufacturers to consolidate shipments in ship-ready containers before moving them to crowded ports, saving time and money. Rep. Mitch Gillespie, who lives in Marion and represents McDowell and Burke counties, introduced three inland-port bills in the General Assembly to define the state’s stake in what likely would be a public-private partnership. Smaller inland terminals, at the Charlotte and Greensboro airports, were built by the state several years ago.
Gillespie says Marion “makes a good case for itself. But Asheville is also attractive.” Asheville is closer to markets in Tennessee and Virginia, though Marion would have more real estate available at a lower price. But both have rivals. Greenville-Spartanburg is one of three South Carolina sites seeking inland-port status.
The Tar Heel study approved in December will evaluate contenders. Dale Carroll, president and CEO of a 23-county economic-development partnership, heads the western North Carolina effort. AdvantageWest members recently visited an inland port in Front Royal, Va. Spokesman Joe Harris says it has created 7,000 jobs nearby.
The deciding factor when the report is delivered in December? Gillespie says it will be international trade. “Everyone talks about how free trade has taken jobs away from us. This is a way it can bring them back.”