Georgia port business grew, even as exports to China fell

Cargo ships on their way to and from a crucial Georgia port regularly pass by downtown Savannah. Brant Sanderlin / AJC
Cargo ships on their way to and from a crucial Georgia port regularly pass by downtown Savannah. Brant Sanderlin / AJC

Business at Georgia ports grew last year, even as shipments from their biggest trade partner fell.

As U.S. trade battles with China raged, the number of container loads shipped from Georgia to that country dropped 14% in the first nine months of last year. Meanwhile, imports from China dipped 1%, according to the Georgia Ports Authority.

But the ports in Savannah and Brunswick, both crucial Georgia way stations for global commerce, benefited from a growing economy. The ports increased trade with other countries, particularly Vietnam and India, and landed cargo usually handled by U.S. West Coast ports, authority executive director Griff Lynch said.

As a result, the ports handled 4.6 million containers in 2019, up 5.6% or nearly a quarter of a million more containers from the year before, according to the state authority.

“It kind of defied the odds,” Lynch said.

“It is a sign that the Southeast is just a healthy place to be in the U.S. right now,” he added later.

Last year’s growth was slower than the 7% average gains for the three years prior, Lynch said. And it was a bit below the 10-year average for the facilities.

Lynch said he couldn’t estimate what kind of growth there would have been without U.S.-China tariffs and trade anxiety.

In the first nine months of last year, peanut exports from Savannah to China dropped 20% compared to the period a year earlier. Forest products and kaolin clay also declined, while there were increases for chemical products and cotton.

Poultry shipments out of Georgia had been flat for years, Lynch said. But in recent weeks, after the end of a years-long ban on U.S. chicken imports to China and the signing of the first phase of a U.S.-China trade deal, ports officials they have seen a surge in Georgia exports of poultry, peanuts and pecans.

Georgia’s ports handle cargo from various regions of the world and aren’t as dependent on Asia as some West Coast ports are, Lynch said. “All of our eggs are not in one basket.”

An economist hired by the ports authority forecast continued growth for the decade ahead, but at a slower, 4% average annual rate, according to the authority.

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