Georgia's seaports are seeing business slow down after a record-smashing 2015



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SAVANNAH, Georgia — Georgia's busy seaports are beginning to see business slow down after a record-smashing 2015 in which shipments of containerized cargo through Savannah jumped a whopping 11.7 percent, the Georgia Ports Authority reported Monday.

The agency said the state's ports in Savannah and Brunswick moved a record 31.4 million tons of imports and exports in the last calendar year, up 3.6 percent from 2014. Containers used to ship goods from retail electronics to frozen chickens jumped more than 391,000 units in Savannah, the nation's fourth-busiest container port, for a total of 3.7 million.

The ports probably won't top that performance in 2016, said Curtis Foltz, executive director of the ports authority.

A West Coast labor dispute that diverted extra cargo to Georgia last year has passed, many retailers remain flush with inventory following the holidays, and a strong dollar has blunted demand for some U.S. exports.

"When we start looking at month-on-month comparisons for the balance of the year, they're going to be challenging for sure," Foltz said, adding that business remains strong overall. "If you look at the growth that's occurred, we're still looking at volumes that we didn't anticipate happening until 2018 or 2019."

The ports' total tonnage for the last six months of 2015 was down 1.3 percent from the previous year.

Foltz told the port authority's governing board Monday that agriculture exports, namely soybeans, have taken a hit thanks to an abundant crop in Brazil. Automobile imports and exports through the Port of Brunswick are down after Volkswagen last year moved its business — worth about 80,000 vehicles per year — to Jacksonville, Florida.

Containerized cargo dipped 5.7 percent in December. Foltz said consumer imports will likely remain soft as retailers churn through unsold inventory from the holidays.

"Inventory levels are higher than we like them to be," Foltz said. "... What that probably will translate into is slower imports for the next six months."

Despite expectations for a short-term slowdown, the ports are making big investments that anticipate future growth. The board Monday approved $8.2 million for construction of a new lot for storing empty cargo containers and signed off on $47 million to buy four new ship-to-shore cranes. The purchase means Savannah should have 40 total cranes in operation by 2018.

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