Ports director: N.C. ‘can’t go toe-to-toe’ with neighboring East Coast ports

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Halfway into his presentation on “The Future of NC Ports”—the title of the latest community conversation hosted by the Cape Fear Economic Development Council—Jeff Miles, acting executive director of the N.C. State Ports Authority, put into words the authority’s approach to competing with other East Coast ports.

The Port of Wilmington. Photo courtesy N.C. State Ports Authority.

“Charleston, Norfolk and Savannah today are just behemoth container operators,” he said. “Engaging in an arms race with those guys is a prescription for a serious loss. We just can’t go toe-to-toe with them today.”

The statement was in contrast to those of just a few years ago, when then-CEO Tom Eagar touted the need for North Carolina to compete with its neighbors for container shipping—specifically ships ever-increasing in size, beyond the widths and depths that the ports of Wilmington and Morehead City can accommodate.

The strategy then—until 2010—was to build a deep-water international port on land the authority owns just up the Cape Fear River from Southport, near the mouth of the river and 30 miles closer to the ocean than the Port of Wilmington. Political support for that project waned, and by 2010, Eagar declared it officially “on hold.”

A year and a half later, Eagar was out—dismissed as part of a restructuring announced by then-Secretary of Transportation Gene Conti. The move came as a surprise to the ports authority’s board of directors, which had assumed hire-and-fire authority over the CEO—prior to the authority becoming part of the Department of Transportation—and was left to wonder what authority it in fact still had.

That question remains unanswered, as the board appeared similarly out-of-the-loop when Eagar’s replacement, Thomas Bradshaw, stepped down from his post two months ago—a move similarly announced by new Transportation Secretary Anthony Tata, who also serves on the authority board.

Miles, who was named acting director as a result—on top of his previous duties as the authority’s chief operations officer—did not address that subject in his presentation Tuesday, delivered at the WHQR studios in downtown Wilmington.

Nor was the topic of a lawsuit by Eagar seeking back-pay since his January 2012 dismissal. The lawsuit, filed in December in New Hanover County Superior Court, claims Conti did not have authority over the board of directors to fire him.

The topics were discussed at the board’s regular meeting last week, though not in open session. The board met behind closed doors for much of the regular meeting, focusing mainly on financial reports during the portion that was open to the public.

Asked afterward about those topics specifically, Chairman Danny McComas confirmed the board did discuss the lawsuit—liability insurance, specifically—and the authority issue, noting the board “had a good discussion”—in closed session, he said.

“It was not discussed in the open meeting,” McComas said, referring to the hire-and-fire issue specifically. On that topic, he added, “We’re making progress.”

Progress is what Miles said the ports authority has made since 2010, when the Southport terminal—not mentioned Tuesday, either—was put on the shelf.

That year, the authority recorded a net loss of almost $6 million, Miles said. By 2012, it posted a profit of $300,000—just in the black, he noted. This fiscal year, Miles said the authority is on track to report an income approaching $3 million.

“The takeaway from that is it’s a very positive trend,” he said. “What this team has accomplished over the last three fiscal years, to me, is nothing short of an economic miracle.”

Miles also touched on the future of the ports, in keeping with the title of the conversation event, which attracted a crowd of about 20 people.

Rather than compete head-to-head with other ports for shipping and capacity, Miles said the authority’s priorities include utilizing available capacity at Wilmington and maintaining accessibility via highways and the navigational channel, which is slated for work by way of what’s called the Wilmington Harbor Improvement Project.

Still in the study phase, the project would widen the port’s turning basin, modify the channel’s sharp turn at Battery Island—located off the Southport waterfront—and address issues facing the entrance to the channel, such as shoaling off the beach along Bald Head Island.

Miles said the modification at Battery Island would involve widening the existing channel to provide more room for ships to maneuver.

“You can imagine a 965-foot ship trying to make about a 96-degree turn to the right; it’s a little tough,” he said.

“There’s nothing more pressing in the industry today than finding the ways and means to maintain accessibility to our ports by the ships that are getting much larger and deeper.”

Accessibility also relates to railroads and highways, Miles said, referring in particular to “the last mile” between ports and interstate highways. When asked the authority’s position on a third bridge crossing for the Cape Fear River, Miles said such access would only improve port operations.

“All things being equal, a third crossing would be a great enhancement to the ‘last mile’ access issues that I touched on,” Miles said. “But it gets into routing and planning and location that is not an area that I’ve spent a lot of time on in the brief two months that I’ve been in this other role—trying to have a more broad perspective.

“I’d love to see more access,” he said. “I’d love to see another bridge crossing or another transportation artery that would make getting to the Port of Wilmington that much easier.”

Miles also addressed whether off-shore wind turbines proposed off Cape Fear would impact port operations and shipping. Miles said discussions with the U.S. Coast Guard have indicated that shipping would not be adversely affected, adding that the ports could benefit from business that would come with constructing and maintaining the turbines.

“I see that having a potential to really contribute in a meaningful way to our overall business performance,” he said.

Jonathan Spiers is a reporter for Port City Daily. He can be reached at (910) 772-6313 or jonathan.s@portcitydaily.com. On Twitter: @jrspiers