Satisfaction, finally, for one ports worker

It was 1996 when Atlanta held the Olympics, President Bill Clinton got a second term, the Macarena ruled the airwaves and officials announced plans to deepen the port of Savannah to 48 feet.

Eighteen years later, not a shovelful of mud has been scooped for the Savannah Harbor Expansion Project (SHEP). On Wednesday, though, a bevy of ebullient politicians, government officials and businessmen gathered at a Home Depot warehouse south of Atlanta to sign a long-awaited agreement to, finally, begin digging.

Dredging — to a depth of 47 feet — could begin by year’s end. Five years from now, supersized container ships could ply 41 miles of Savannah River and ocean channel loaded with imports from China and exports to Germany. Roughly 100,000 jobs in metro Atlanta alone depend upon trade coursing through the ports of Savannah and Brunswick.

Jamie McCurry wasn’t on the dais Wednesday with Gov. Nathan Deal, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss and Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. But McCurry — more than just about anybody else inside the cavernous warehouse — shepherded SHEP to fruition.

In 1996, a boyish and hirsute McCurry worked for U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Savannah) as a rookie legislative aide handling, among other home-district priorities, the newly announced deepening project. A year later, he joined the Georgia Ports Authority and was given the legislative affairs portfolio charged with making the $706 million deepening happen.

“It’s been a heck of a challenge,” said McCurry, now 40 and with markedly less hair. “No question there were a lot of frustrating points along the way, times when you wondered when — if — we’d finally reach the point of construction.”

Everybody knew the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would methodically research the deepening’s engineering, environmental and economic impacts. They all understood that lining up congressional approvals at various junctures would be dicey. And they anticipated environmental challenges — and lawsuits — from Georgia and South Carolina groups defending the coast’s marshes and wildlife.

“But I don’t think anyone imagined it would be this slow or this long,” Mayor Reed said Wednesday.

Congress green-lighted the project in 1999. Thirteen years later, Washington gave its final blessing.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought the process would take 17 years,” said Trip Tollison, president of the Savannah Economic Development Authority. “It was a very complicated project and Jamie was the glue that kept it all together.”

James C. McCurry Jr. was sorely tried in 2004 and again in 2008 when many thought the deepening would be approved. Each time, the Corps wanted more study. Environmental lawsuits, settled in 2013, further slowed the project. As did bureaucratic monkey wrenches from South Carolina backers of the rival Charleston port.

“Tragically, it’s taken that long to get something done for our country,” said McCurry, now director of administrative and governmental affairs for the ports. “There’s got to be a way to make this happen quicker.” He even left the project , but not much had changed upon his return.

"I guess the port is always near and dear to my heart," said McCurry, who grew up in Savannah and unwinds aboard his father's boat, Kathy's Clown. A sip of Basil Hayden's bourbon also helps manage the frustrations, as does training for the occasional marathon.

McCurry, naturally, didn’t land SHEP by himself. Port long-timers Hope Moorer, Robert Morris and David Schaller share star billing.

McCurry, though, is the deepening dude in Georgia. All he has to do now is make sure Washington comes up with its $400 million share.

“It’s been immensely frustrating, but at the same time there’s a big sense of victory that we’ve gotten to the construction phase,” McCurry said.