Bainbridge officials say ‘port city’ title no longer a reality

Published 2:58 pm Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Bainbridge was the first inland port city in the state of Georgia — which is well known and established throughout town with business names like “First Port City Bank” and “Port City Deli.”
Operating within the Georgia Ports Authority, Bainbridge is one of four ports including Savannah, Brunswick and Columbus, but today it rarely sees traffic by barge — in fact it hasn’t in more than five years. As of Oct. 7 of this year, however, the chances for the city to encourage any more barge traffic will narrow even further, city officials said, as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Mobile District changes to a new lockage schedule.
The Corps schedule for the lock on the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River basin, the area where barges and ships could navigate into Bainbridge from the Gulf of Mexico, will now operate on a stricter schedule Monday through Thursday, and only if lock operators are present, according to a statement by the Corps given last week.
Boaters are encouraged to call lock operators before they plan to lock through to make sure they will be able to do so. Locks are open 24 hours a day and seven days a week for commercial traffic only, but that is if an appointment is made. Non-commercial boaters can lock through but subject to the availability of lock operators.
Bainbridge-Decatur County Development Authority Executive Director Rick McCaskill said though he is uncomfortable saying it, Bainbridge is not a port any longer, and that has been the case since the Corps stopped dredging the Apalachicola River years ago.
“I’m uncomfortable saying it, but it’s a fact, we can’t pitch ourselves as a port anymore. If I try to get someone to come here because we are a port, it would be disingenuous at the very least,” McCaskill said. “We haven’t had barge traffic here for four or five years. ”
He said the development authority switched their pitch for recruiting industry through the idea of barge traffic several years ago. The city is still officially in the Georgia Ports Authority and technically a port, operating their shipping primarily by rail.
“If you say ‘we can do barge traffic,’ that opens you up to a small group of people that have to use you,” McCaskill said. “There are certain people, who their whole business is built around it and their business model only works with barge — it doesn’t work if you don’t have it. Well we no longer can market to them. True, you could theoretically get a barge here from time to time — but if you can’t know when you can get a barge through, then what are you going to do?”
Several industries in Bainbridge would thrive if barge traffic was cleared the go through the Apalachicola. A three-mile stretch of the Apalachicola is what barges would have to navigate through to reach the Flint River and sail to Bainbridge. That Apalachicola stretch is the part of the river, McCaskill said, that needs the dredging.
He and other officials are trying to work out a window in which the Corps could allow water levels to rise several times each year to get barges through.
“We are trying to get several windows a year for several weeks where they allow us to get a barge up and down through the system,” McCaskill said. “If we could just establish something where we could get a little bit of traffic.”
Industries located on the Flint River like Ergon Terminaling Inc. which produces specialty asphalt liquids, as well as Steward Machine that manufactures equipment like doors for locks and dams, have told the Corp. their industries would double in size if allowed barges to come to the port city.
“We need waterway navigation windows,” Whit DeBardeleben, CEO of Steward Machine said to Corps officials, persuading them for barge traffic last year in a meeting. “I could double, if not triple, my workforce in Bainbridge in a couple of months if I were promised a navigation window.
“If we could get some sort of guarantee, or even a strong likelihood, of some water release at any time, we can plan ahead, get our products shipped out of here. The work is out there, gentlemen, there are jobs out there for Bainbridge, but the water is such a key ingredient for this town. The opportunities for Bainbridge are limitless.”
Ergon Terminaling has had to adapt their business in Bainbridge to shipping their liquid asphalt product in rail cars, where they once shipped with barges.
A barge can hold 2,400 tons of their product while a rail car can hold 90 tons. The result is that 1,111 cars are filled and shipped each year in place of 42 barges.

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