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Take a look at $570 million in changes at the Port of Gulfport

Work on phase one of the expansion of the West Pier at the Port of Gulfport is complete and a ribbon cutting and public tours are scheduled for Dec. 1. Photo: Monday, Nov. 19, 2018.
Work on phase one of the expansion of the West Pier at the Port of Gulfport is complete and a ribbon cutting and public tours are scheduled for Dec. 1. Photo: Monday, Nov. 19, 2018. jcfitzhugh@sunherald.com

It’s been in the works since 2007 and now the $570 million restoration and expansion of the Port of Gulfport is complete.

A ribbon cutting and open house to mark the end of Phase I begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1, outside in the north harbor of the port. After the speeches, free public tours of the port and the new USM Marine Research Center will be offered for all ages.

The tours will pass three massive gantry cranes that cost $10 million each and had to be brought from China, since no American manufacturer makes them, said Jonathan Daniels, executive director of the port. They ultimately were responsible for Chiquita’s return to the port, he said.

What’s new

The 31 projects, completed by 1,700 construction workers, came in $41 million under budget, Daniels said, and were completed while the port was operating.

The north harbor and west side of the port were rebuilt at a cost of about $400 million. All of the tenant locations were expanded and 300,000 square feet of warehouse space was built, including 21,000 of chilled space.

Gulfport is the second largest green fruit port in the U.S., he said, and cargo unloaded in Gulfport travel by rail and truck as far east as Charleston, South Carolina, as far north as Chicago and as far west as Southern California.

It’s also one of 17 strategic ports in the U.S. authorized to handle military cargo.

“It’s a very different port than it was,” Daniels said. When he came to work at the port in June 2013, the restoration and expansion project was at about the half-way mark.

He was warned not to take the job, he said, was told Gulfport can’t compete with other ports in the Gulf of Mexico and that the feds were threatening to take the project away, Daniels said.

By then the port was elevated to 14 feet to safeguard it from future storm surges. In 2014, nine years after Hurricane Katrina and seven years after the project was obligated by Congress, construction was ready to begin.

What a difference cranes make

The rail-mounted gantry cranes arrived in 2016 and Daniels said “The cranes were absolutely critical,” to the return of Chiquita to Gulfport. The company that imports bananas left Gulfport for the Port of New Orleans. It returned two years later with a 40-year lease, and now is able to bring in ships that carry twice the amount of cargo into Gulfport, he said.

Before that the longest lease was 3 to 4 years, Daniels said. Now the shortest is 15 years. Crowley has options to extend that 15 year lease to 30, he said. Dole has a 23-year lease, McDermott 40 years, Island View Casino 50 years and Chemours, which expanded its operations by 82 percent and invested in new silos at the port, has a 60-year lease.

The port is much more diverse now, he said, and the reliance on revenue from the casino dropped from 57 percent to 32 percent this last year, he said,

In addition to standard shipping, he said the port tenants are involved in the oil and gas industry, shipbuilding, offshore supply, manufacturing, tourism and education with the opening of the new Marine Science Center and its 135-foot research boat, the R/V Point Sur, which is the only oceanographic research vessel in the northern Gulf.

This diversification of the tenant and revenue mix is something he said will grow tremendously. The budget also has grown, he said, with revenue that was $14 million projected to reach $29 million at the end of the year.

“We aren’t stopping there,” he said. The port was approved for an expansion in 2017 and is in the process of looking at the next level of development in Phase II.

Jobs to come

With the money allocated by Congress came a requirement that the port would create 1,300 jobs.

Daniels said HUD has certified 557 new jobs, which is 43 percent of the goal that must be reached by 2022.

“They don’t include construction jobs,” he said. They also don’t include transportation or longshoreman jobs. Since the arrival of the cranes, he said the Longshoreman’s Union 1303 has logged 100,000 more hours a year.

It does include hospitality jobs added at Island View Casino, which make up some of the 35 percent of jobs that went to low-to-moderate income residents.

SeaOne Gulfport, a company that has a lease for a compressed gas liquids production plant at the port, would add chemists, marketing and other professional jobs, Daniels said.

The port has sponsored 36 job awareness programs to help residents understand what jobs skills they need.

“If they get a job at the port, great,” he said, but some go to work in shipbuilding, which he said still benefits the community.

For a long time the port was seen in isolation he said, and was not as involved in the community as it needed to be.

“We did not do a very good job of getting our message out there,” he said. Now the public is invited to see the port and what it offers.

“We tried to lift the veil on Oz,” he said.

Port of Gulfport by the numbers

300 acres — current size of the port, which is twice the size pre-Katrina

$2.5 million tons — the amount of cargo moved at the port in 2017, a new record

75 percent of U.S. market – can be reached in 24 hours from the Port of Gulfport

11,000 plus — rail cars run through the port each year

204,000 vehicles — (commercial, construction, personal vehicles) entered the port in 2017, a new record

1,723 full time people — worked on the construction project. 35 percent of them were low-to-moderate income residents

— Port of Gulfport

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