SAVANNAH - Losing the business of a major automaker hasn't stopped the Georgia Ports Authority from racing ahead with a $12.7 million expansion of its lots used to store new cars and trucks being shipping through the Port of Brunswick.
Americans have been buying new automobiles at near record numbers this year, and Georgia port officials are betting demand for importing and exporting vehicles will continue to grow at the port 60 miles south of Savannah.
The ports authority's governing board voted Monday to pave an additional 63 acres at its Colonel's Island terminal in Brunswick, which already has 422 acres dedicated to parking autos waiting to be loaded onto ships or trucks. The new parking lots will add room for up to 11,000 vehicles.
That investment comes despite Volkswagen's decision in February to leave Brunswick for the Port of Jacksonville, Florida, just 70 miles to the south. The move pulled roughly 80,000 Volkswagen vehicles a year out of Brunswick, costing the Georgia port about 12 percent of its total auto business.
Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said he's already hearing from other manufacturers interested in filling the void left by Volkswagen.
"It's kind of been surprising to us, but we're still seeing volumes that are strong and we're continuing to have other customers approach us about coming to Colonel's Island," Foltz said. "All our customers presently are completely full. We're parking automobiles on the grass and some of our customers are having to use off-site storage areas for automobiles."
He said the expansion should be finished in about a year.
Though small compared to the largest U.S. seaports, Brunswick has established itself as one of the nation's busiest gateways for automobile imports and exports. The port moved 670,181 vehicles across its docks in fiscal 2015. It handled less than half that number five years earlier.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's Foreign Trade Division, Brunswick last year handled more autos and other heavy machinery by weight - more than 1.3 million tons - than any American seaport except Baltimore.
Georgia ports officials say 20 automakers - including Toyota, Subaru, Audi, Bentley, GM, Hyundai, Jaguar, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Rolls Royce - are shipping vehicles through Brunswick. So the exit of Volkswagen wasn't too alarming to local business boosters.
"There might have been a little heartburn with it," said Woody Woodside, president of the Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce. "There was no panic, nothing like that. When you look at the number of auto companies Georgia has been able to attract in there, we're confident they'll be able to grow it."
Jacksonville's offer of $17.7 million in incentives helped lure Volkswagen away from Georgia. But there should be enough auto business overall for southeastern ports to share, said Jeffrey Humphreys, director of economic forecasting at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business.
Major auto manufacturing plants run by Kia in Georgia, Mercedes-Benz in Alabama, BMW in South Carolina and Volkswagen in Tennessee have boosted vehicle exports from the region, Humphreys said, while growing populations in the region have driven up demand for imports.
Many automakers reported double-digit sales increases in October, raising expectations that 2015 could be a record year. Analysts say many Americans who held onto older cars through the recession are finally shopping at dealerships as the economy improves.
"We are on average driving very old cars, so there is some deferred demand," Humphreys said. "It's not going to last forever. It makes for a good year, and we probably have another couple of years of catching up."