COLUMBIA - South Carolina has deepened Charleston's port to make sure it can take in any ship and remains one of the largest harbors on the East Coast.
The channel leading to the Port of Charleston is now 52 feet deep, once again allowing the biggest ships in the world to make it in and out of the harbor.
The new channel runs some 40 miles through the inner harbor and open ocean and is wide enough that one ship coming in can pass the other leaving the state.
"Any time, any tide, any day. I'm not sure anyone else can say that," South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said at a Monday ceremony marking the end of the 12-year project.
The Charleston port has long been seen as the economic heart of South Carolina. The first deepening project was in 1851, taking the 12-foot channel to 17 feet. The eighth one completed this year was prompted by the expansion of the Panama Canal to match the largest ships that can take the shortcut from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
The Charleston port's position as deepest on the East Coast is precarious. Work has started in Norfolk to make the Port of Virginia deeper.
And South Carolina officials acknowledge it's not just a deep channel that ensures a port's success. Hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into better rail lines and highways to get goods in and out as well as speeding up and making more efficient the loading and unloading of the ships themselves.
Almost all of the biggest and fastest-growing companies in South Carolina during the past 30 years - like BMW, Michelin and Boeing - all consider getting their products rapidly and easily out of the Port of Charleston and to the rest of the world vital to their decisions to locate in the state.
"This step makes us more competitive. This step attracts more investment and business to our state. Most important, our deepening project will bring economic success and opportunities to South Carolinians for decades to come," South Carolina Ports CEO Barbara Melvin said.
Monday's ceremony also included a nod to former Democratic President Barack Obama for supporting federal money for the nearly $600 million project after state lawmakers offered $300 million up front in the early 2010s.
The state money was vital because it let federal officials know how serious South Carolina was on expanding the Port of Charleston, U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham said.
Monday's ceremony ended with Graham pulling a switch that signaled a dredge just offshore of Mount Pleasant's Memorial Waterfront Park to send a stream of water and silt into the air as the final yard of material.
Melvin promised jars of that valuable sea floor to the dignitaries at the event.
Graham said South Carolina's unprecedented growth since BMW came here 30 years ago couldn't have continued without the project.
"The economy of South Carolina would have hit a brick wall," Graham said. "We're going to celebrate the most consequential seven feet in the history of South Carolina."
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