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98 mayors say dig Charleston Harbor; nonprofit calls for smart investment

$400,000 dredging request on port's Christmas list and on everyone's mind

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When the Port of Charleston finally secures that elusive $400,000 federal grant to study deepening the Charleston Harbor, no one will argue the Lowcountry didn't work hard for that money.

The stakes, as presented, involve Charleston's continued viability as other East Coast ports are moving ahead with dredging to support larger ships. But Sen. Jim DeMint has refused to secure spending for the port in Congress and Gov.-Elect Nikki Haley's has sent mixed signals about whether she'd agree to any federal support.

On Monday, the State Ports Authority released a letter authored by 98 South Carolina mayors endorsing the project. The letter was written to President Barack Obama, who could target spending for the project in the administration's budget for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

"We are extremely appreciative of and humbled by the mayors' support for Charleston deepening, particularly Charleston Mayor Joe Riley's leadership," said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, in a statement.

In spirit, the letter is similar to an effort Riley led in 2009 to rally mayors across the state, asking Gov. Mark Sanford to accept federal stimulus dollars.

On Tuesday, Riley will be holding a press conference at the Charleston Maritime Center with Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, and CEOs from United Infrastructure Group and Roper St. Francis Healthcare. The event was organized by Building America's Future Educational Fund, a national nonprofit that advocates for infrastructure investment. The focus will be on Charleston's economic competitiveness, particularly looking at the port, regional transportation (likely passenger rail), and Crosstown flooding.

The letter from the mayors talks up the logistical advantages of dredging the Charleston port, considering it would be cheaper than dredging any of the other ports in the Southeast. But a New York Times article over the weekend shows the tough competition. Georgia Port Authority director Curtis Foltz laid out the hard truth (h/t FITS News).

"We've never looked at Charleston as a competitor," Foltz told the Times. "All you have to do is look at the numbers. The stats speak for themselves." The article notes Savannah is the fourth-largest in the country and Charleston is the 12th, according to the American Association of Port Authorities.

Expansion in Charleston has stalled and stumbled over the last decade, while ports in Savannah and Norfolk have thrived. Critics point directly to coordinated expansion plans in Georgia and Virginia, as opposed to the flailing that South Carolina Ports performed so masterfully until bringing in new leadership.

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