The way opponents tell it, a planned $2.3 billion international port in Southport would sell Wilmington down the river. Untrue, state port executives say. They insist that North Carolina’s primary port is secure and that arguments to the contrary are nothing more than a scare tactic designed to sink the new 600-acre terminal before it launches.
Backers hope the North Carolina International Terminal will begin operations in 2017, capable of handling the world’s largest container ships. Those docking in Wilmington typically carry about 4,000 20-foot containers. The Southport terminal could accommodate ships carrying up to 12,000. The new terminal was announced in 2005, but the disagreement began heating up in April with formation of a group that calls itself No Port/Southport. Spokeswoman Celeste Plassman says it has several hundred members. Many are retirees who live in the town of about 2,500 near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. They fear a massive port would bring pollution, traffic, and health and safety hazards.
Their attack, though, has been based less on those factors than the new terminal’s economics and viability. “We decided to go with facts only,” Plassman, a retiree, says. Those facts, she adds, are that the N.C. State Ports Authority has understated the terminal’s costs and overstated its benefits. Dredging a channel deep enough for giant container ships would cost more than $2 billion, she says, in addition to the terminal’s $2.3 billion cost. But opponents say the clincher is the argument that the authority, to make the international terminal viable, would have to close the Wilmington port, more than 20 miles upstream.
Port officials say opponents’ objections don’t hold water. “Wilmington and Morehead City are both going to thrive and grow,” says spokeswoman Karen Fox. “The Southport terminal is going to complement both.” She says the authority expects continued growth of container freight to justify the new terminal. That growth should be about 8% a year for the next two years, then 6% a year beginning in 2010. Wilmington will handle smaller container ships as well as general cargo shipments such as wood pulp, steel and bulk materials like fertilizer, Fox says.
Unless, of course, No Ports/Southport manages to sink the new terminal. “This has nothing to do with NIMBY — not in my back yard — issues,” Plassman says. “The taxpayers of the state have a stake in this.”
New gold standard
With $700 million to dole out, the world should beat a path to Golden LEAF’s door. But Dan Gerlach, the new president of the Rocky Mount-based nonprofit, says he’s not waiting to see who shows up. “We’re going out and put some boots on the ground, trying to learn what community needs are to have greater participation.” But don’t expect Golden LEAF, which distributes proceeds from half the state’s share of the national tobacco settlement, to focus entirely on community projects. It provided $100 million to entice Wichita, Kan.- based Spirit AeroSystems to Kinston’s Global TransPark. And Gerlach, who spent seven years as Gov. Mike Easley’s chief fiscal adviser before starting the $189,000-a-year Golden LEAF job Oct. 1., says similar transformational projects remain a high priority. “We’re not doing the job of government, but we’re going to supplement the role of government.”