The Port of Charleston is the No. 1 economic development engine in South Carolina, and a project to deepen the harbor would expand the services it can provide, said Jim Newsome, president and CEO of the S.C. Ports Authority.

“Ports are about growth,” he told Aiken Rotary Club members Monday. “Every county in the state is important to our port, and we’re here to support them.”

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., attended the meeting, and Newsome said Graham has been instrumental in moving the port project forward.

The big push is a feasibility study to deepen the harbor to 50 feet. While that process by the Army Corps of Engineers has accelerated, it’s still about four years away, pending full financing. The project could be completed by 2018.

“Our ports are a network of harbors, and we need our regional ports at 50 feet,” Newsome said. “Our current depth of 45 feet can maintain us over the next five years. Right now we can handle ships up to 48 feet of draft with significant tidal restrictions. Through deepening the harbor, we are seeking unfettered access of ships for 24 hours a day.”

Newsome, who joined the Ports Authority in 2009, reiterated that the project never would have gone anywhere without Graham’s support and initiative. The senator got bipartisan assistance from two Democrats – U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C., and Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, Newsome said.

“I have watched Sen. Graham work,” Newsome said. “He is an incredible leader and is the resident expert in Congress on this. Two years ago, we were laughed at by the Corps of Engineers on the feasibility study. Without Graham, Clyburn and Riley, we would have had no chance to be on a level playing field.”

In turn, Graham described Newsome as a godsend, saying the Ports Authority CEO understands the situation better than anyone he has ever met.

“We now have a plan that was missing in the past,” Graham said. “Without Jim’s leadership, we would have been dead in the water.”

Two years ago, the project appeared headed in that direction, Graham said. There was no money to do the first year of the study. He credited Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Republicans and Democrats with getting $150,000 from the Corps of Engineers to make sure the study process would not die.

“We convinced Republicans and Democrats that Charleston should be among the top tier of ports to be deepened,” Graham said. “We’re now near the top of the heap, but we have had no vision for deepening ports or an inland waterway system.”

The senator’s priority next year is to develop such a vision for deepening ports nationally and keeping Charleston’s port on track.

Newsome pointed out the S.C. General Assembly will invest hundreds of millions of dollars to the total project. The project will also need $300 million in federal funds as a match.

Will Williams, executive director of the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership, credited Graham and Newsome for the critical leadership roles they have taken throughout the process.

“The port is important for Aiken County,” Williams said. “One of the many reasons Bridgestone chose to come here is the proximity to the port. They will have larger tires to export with the recent expansion. Kaolin companies use the port as well, and the port will help attract new companies. I feel confident we’ll get this done with Sen. Graham’s support.”

Rob Novit is the education reporter for the Aiken Standard.