In the two fiscal years before 2020, the number of jobs in Bulloch County directly linked to trade through Georgia's ports – including the third-largest by volume and fastest growing container port in the United States – reportedly grew by 11%, to 4,940 local jobs.
Those numbers were from a study that the Terry College of Business at the University of Georgia did for the Georgia Ports Authority, updating to fiscal year 2019 from a previous study that showed the number of port-connected jobs in calendar year 2017. James C. "Jamie" McCurry Jr., the Ports Authority's chief administrative officer, presented these and other statistics on the ports and their impact on the economy as Nov. 16 guest speaker for the Statesboro Rotary Club.
“We actually had an increase of right at half a million jobs statewide that are associated with port activity one way or another, and specifically, in Bulloch County, what’s most interesting to me about this is you’ve got right at 5,000 jobs locally. ...," McCurry said. "So just in the two years prior you’ve increased by 11 percent.”
Spring 2020 brought a sudden drop in volume for the ports with the COVID-19 pandemic, he acknowledged. But McCurry reported that a rebound was underway by August to a record high volume for the Port of Savannah in October.
“We haven’t released our October numbers yet, but October was a our busiest month ever. …,” he said. “So it’s been a really crazy year. We do feel like when the year’s all said and done it will be a relatively flat year for us. We will probably see some modest growth in total, but it’s way up and down, it shows really the complete shutdown in trade globally.”
Meanwhile, the port's largest customer in Statesboro and Bulloch County, the Walmart Distribution Center, has actually hired more people during the pandemic, according to numbers supplied later by the Development Authority of Bulloch County.
Top port customers
Bulloch County's highest volume customers for the ports as of 2019 were Walmart, KJM Custom Components, Farmer Automatic of America, Briggs & Stratton and Brewster Home Fashions, according to the list in McCurry's slideshow.
“This is just including the top five, so we could probably have a list of several dozen if we went all the way through it,” he told the the Rotary Club audience.
KJM supplies certain components to Briggs & Stratton, whose Statesboro factory makes small engines, as is well known. Briggs is both an importer and an exporter. Farmer Automatic, which has a Register address on U.S. Highway 301 South, manufactures and distributes equipment used in the poultry industry. Brewster Home Fashions, known locally by the company name Hypotenuse, occupies the former Nash Finch warehouse and imports home decor items and furniture from Asia.
Walmart DC jobs
Bulloch County's largest importer, the Walmart Distribution Center, ranks in the top few of Georgia Ports Authority customers, Benjy Thompson, CEO of the Development Authority of Bulloch County, said in a later interview. He noted that the "Walmart DC" appears to have increased its volume during the pandemic, as indicated by job growth.
"Their employment numbers have increased significantly during the coronavirus period," Thompson told the Stateboro Herald. "A lot of that's due to the nature of retail, I think, with people being sheltered and not able to go out as much. There's more online shopping, and ... Walmart's starting to do some e-commerce work out of the Statesboro facility."
The huge retailer's in-store business has also continued at a healthy pace, he added.
After checking some numbers from the company, Thompson reported that the Walmart Distribution Center had about 1,050 employees as of October, an 43% increase in one year, from 738 employees in October 2019. The number of jobs in the distribution center has grown 28% just since April 1, Thompson said.
"So their employment has been very strong, and those people live and work here in Bulloch County or close by," he said. "They spend their money here. So that's a great job the port has done and the partnership they have with the Walmart Distribution Center is extremely important for Bulloch County today."
He acknowledged that some other major local employers have cut jobs during this time.
In the Georgia Ports Authority's report, the increase in employment statewide linked to trade through the ports was 13%, to roughly 497,000 jobs, from 2017 to fiscal year 2019. Researchers calculated the value of sales from goods moved through the Georgia ports during fiscal 2019 at roughly $122 billion, for income of $29 billion and a $51 billion impact on the state's gross domestic product.
Most of McCurry's examples of port activity and expansion projects had to do with the Port of Savannah and its largest component, the Garden City Terminal. Occupying 1,345 acres, presenting 9,693 feet of contiguous berth space for ships and with 36 container cranes, it is the largest single container terminal facility in the United States, he said.
“When we talk about how busy we are, how much we’re growing, most of the time we’re talking about container trade," he said. "It’s about 87% of all of our business."
Containers, of course, are the "boxes" that go from ships to rail cars or the backs of tractor-trailer trucks.
In container volume, the Port of Savannah is third-busiest in the country, handling about 4.4 milion 20-foot-equivalent units in fiscal year 2020, and was the fastest growing of the top 10 container ports over the 15 years from 2005 to 2020.
The two higher-volume container ports, Los Angeles-Long Beach, which handled 15.9 million units, and New York-New Jersey, which handled almost 7.2 million units in fiscal 2020, are complexes of multiple ports and terminals. The Port of Houston, fourth largest in container volume, was the second fastest-growing, with a 4.7% increase over the past 15 years.
Savannah's nearest geographic competitor, the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, saw its container volume grow 1.1% but is now eighth-busiest.
The Georgia Ports Authority is fortunate to have both the CSX and the Norfolk Southern railroads operating directly into its facility, and to have both Interstate 95 and Interstate 16 "nearly adjacent" to it, McCurry said. Both interstate highways are about six miles from the Garden City facility, with limited-access connectors.
Atlanta tends to be the nearest destination of containers carried by the railroads. The Port of Savannah reaching beyond it by rail to a "Mid-American ARC" that includes Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. But trucks on the highways serve nearer destinations throughout Georgia.
“This is why Bulloch County, of course is so important to us," he said. "You’re not going to see trains go from Garden City Terminal to Statesboro, but you’ll see a preponderance of trucks wherever that business is necessary. It’s the cheapest and the easiest way to move containers in this part of the state.”
The Georgia Ports Authority also operates the Port of Brunswick facilities, including the also physically large Colonel's Island Terminal for imported automobiles.
In effect a state-owned business, the Ports Authority does not receive Georgia taxpayer funding for its annual operating expenses. Now operationally self-sufficient, the authority also pays for capital investments "inside the fence line" such as purchasing new cranes or expanding the terminal itself, McCurry said.
But the Ports Authority relies on the state and federal governments for major investments in the harbor channels, road system and other other projects that benefit the ports and their customers outside the terminal gates. The railroad companies also participate in funding some projects.
After $1 billion in capital investments in the ports from all of these sources over the past decade, the Georgia Ports Authority now has $3.2 billion in projects planned or projected for the next 10 years, with $161.5 million approved for fiscal year 2021.