Port Love

Jun 30, 2015 by Whitney Powers

We applaud the Ports Authority for their $5 million investment to be used for the purchase and protection of land along the Cooper River watershed to mitigate the potential effects of deepening Charleston Harbor. The agreement, made earlier this year, was reached in collaboration with the Lowcountry Open Land Trust, the Coastal Conservation League, and the Southern Environmental Law Center. This type of cooperative work can make our city and port even better.



The port has existed here for virtually as long as the settlement of Charleston.  Today, the port consists of five public marine terminals and is owned and operated by the South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA), a self-governing entity created by the South Carolina General Assembly in 1942, with board members appointed by the state’s Governor and confirmed by the State Senate.


The historical significance of the port is illustrated by Charleston’s colorful maritime history, with many of the city’s earliest historic structures having been constructed as businesses associated with port operations – cooperages (barrels are the original “containers”), smithies, stevedoring companies, warehouses, etc.  The city’s historic waterfront, now a public promenade and park, was once marked by numerous wharfs, hundreds of masts of sailing vessels, shipbuilding, and provisioning operations. If other myths hold any truth, numerous of the city’s earliest streets and walks were constructed from ballast recycled from ships loaded with items destined for global destinations, including indigo, rice, and cotton.


This early Charleston invited people of many backgrounds, often unwelcome in other parts of the world, who found their way here for economic opportunities – French, Scottish, Irish, and German, as well as Jews and Catholics. Sephardic Jews (of Spanish and Portugese ancestry) migrated to the city in such numbers that Charleston became one of the largest Jewish communities in North America (see maritimeheritage.org). From the late 18th through the 19th century Charleston also served as the most active port in the trade of slaves in America, and many Africans, free and slave, lived here outnumbering white residents by a long shot. (see this animated map illustrating the slave trade that is generated from data at slavevoyages.org).



Today, the port’s focus is the movement of containerized shipments and passenger vehicles; and, it consistently ranks in the top 5 of the nation’s containerized ports. Jobs at the port have long been a fundamental source of well-paying, stable jobs in the Charleston region as evidenced by the success represented by the members of such organizations as the International Longshoremen’s Association and the Charleston Branch Pilots Association. Basically, its operations employ “hundreds of thousands” and generate “in excess of $45 billion per year” in economic impacts.


The port’s mission, as one would expect, is largely focused on the bottom-line, especially as it faces fierce competition from other nearby ports in Savannah and Jacksonville:

“The South Carolina Ports Authority (SCPA) promotes, develops, and facilitates waterborne commerce to meet the current and future needs of its customers, and for the economic benefit of the citizens and businesses of South Carolina. The SCPA fulfills this mission by delivering cost competitive facilities and services, collaborating with customers and stakeholders, and sustaining its financial self-sufficiency.”


Sometimes, adherence to this mission runs up against the interests of many who live in proximity to port facilities. The Port Authority has made many efforts to be responsive to local concerns, but with growth in cruise ship traffic in recent years, the local population has increasingly questioned the port’s intentions and its future. Port officials point to their efforts at downtown’s Union Pier to modernize the passenger terminal facilities, including development of parking facilities and completing road connectivity in the vicinity, to mitigate impacts of the embarkation of cruise ships. The community calls for more controls, including the use of shore power when in port and limitations on the number of cruise ship visits during the course of the year. The port recognizes that cultivating and fostering the community is key to the success of its cruise business. However, at this stage, the back-and-forth has mired everyone in lawsuits and there is frustration on all sides.



A year ago, I traveled to Amsterdam with my daughter and visited the National Maritime Museum of the Netherlands, Het Scheepvaartmuseum. Recognizing that Rotterdam was the largest container port outside of China, I was curious how this museum portrayed this vital industry through their history and how they reconciled this history with the future. The historic exhibits were fascinating – the Dutch essentially invented the concept of container transport – and, in one instance, frightening. Slave Trade: The Dark Chapter (see NYTimes review here), underscored that trade’s horrors through installations focused on the slave ship Leusden which sank in Suriname, South America, in 1738. After the ship ran aground, the ship’s captain ordered the “cargo” to be secured in the hold to ensure the investors received an insurance settlement for the loss, and almost 700 African men, women, and children drowned. If there was one thing you could take away from the exhibit, the Dutch do not shirk the dark side of their shipping history.


The final exhibit in the museum, a film projection, took visitors on to the docks and aboard ship from the point of view of a container, and focused on aspects of shipping that Rotterdam uses to distinguish its competitive edge: efficiency, safety, and sustainability.


This seems an interesting triumvirate to success, and is reflected in the port’s strategic plan, Port Compass 2030 (a synopsis in English is here). This document, developed in cooperation with the municipal government, port business association, provincial government, and national government, focuses on ten priorities ranging from infrastructure development to cultivating education geared towards employment. An annual report keeps all stakeholders informed as to the progress (or lack of progress) in each category.


Digging a bit more, one finds a somewhat different mission statement than that of the SCPA: “The Port of Rotterdam Authority develops, in partnership, the world-class European port.”  The port’s website corroborates the exhibit’s message: “We continuously improve the Port of Rotterdam, to make it the most efficient, safe, and sustainable port in the world…”



Theirs may seem a rather basic inconclusive mission, but there is also a distinction in Rotterdam’s governance that might be a more significant clue to how Charleston’s port might consider serving the community interests along with those commercial goals of the state: “The Port of Rotterdam Authority is an autonomous company with two shareholders, the municipality of Rotterdam and the Dutch state.”


Could the South Carolina Ports Authority in Charleston benefit from a Board of Directors that includes representatives who serve at the behest of the communities most impacted by the port operations? A thriving Charleston benefits most from a thriving, economically viable port relationship. It might be time to consider more ways to deepen the ties that bind us to our historic port, cultivate more ways to foster the resources that we share, and find economic opportunities that can create a competitive edge that is distinctive and adds value for the port’s customers.