Jacksonville’s economic development marching orders came across loud and
clear at the Global Trade and Transportation breakfast this week: Find $500
million from federal, state and local government to dredge the St. Johns River
to handle larger ships, make sure the Hanjin shipping company joins Mitsui to
cement the city’s Asian trade ties, and finish the road and rail improvements
needed to maximize the port’s ability to move cargo.
Succeed at these tasks and cement Jacksonville’s future as a premier port on the East Coast, while broadening the city’s economic base considerably. Or fail, and watch the ports of Savannah, Charleston and Norfolk eat our lunch. Yes, the choice is that clear-cut.
The river dredging is the linchpin. Here’s why:
The reason the shippers Mitsui and Hanjin want terminals here is to develop a hub for direct trade from Asia to the East Coast. The Panama Canal is being improved to allow larger cargo ships through, which are more cost-efficient for the shippers. The canal improvements should be done by 2014.
In order for those bigger ships to come to Jacksonville, the St. Johns River channel will have to be deepened, at an approximate cost of $500 million. The federal government will pay about two-thirds of that, leaving Florida and Jacksonville about $165 million to pay.
But other East Coast ports will want to have their port channels dug out for the bigger ships, so there will be stiff competition for those federal dollars. Savannah, Charleston, Norfolk and Jacksonville will all be vying for limited dollars.
Mitsui has opened its terminal near the Dames Point Bridge, and Hanjin has signed a contract to build its terminal next door. Together, they are projected to double the port’s cargo, and then double it again. The potential economic gains for the region in jobs and spin-off transportation services are enormous.
But the river needs to be dredged. Jacksonville has a leg up in one sense: The U.S. Navy’s plans to base a nuclear aircraft carrier at Mayport will require the mouth of the St. Johns to be dredged to allow the carrier to pass. Yet even with that advantage, there are miles of more dredging to be done to reach Dames Point.
If the Northeast Florida business communities need a rallying point, this is it. All businesses will benefit if Jacksonville becomes a major international East Coast port. Need a slogan? Try this: A deeper St. Johns floats all boats.