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A Just and Noble Fight

Story By Jason Frye
Photography By Kristin Goode

No Port Southport, which spent years battling a proposed port in Brunswick County, has officially disbanded now that the project is off the table.

In 2008, things in Brunswick County weren’t going so well. Housing had taken a hit. Construction had slowed to pre-2000s levels. Countywide, the working-class economy had taken a hit, a big one. Developers were folding, builders were laying off framers and roofers and carpenters in droves, and things were looking bleak.

At the time, I was on the front lines of the slowdown. Working with my father-in-law’s Southport cabinet shop, we saw our work go from fully booked three months out to working projects week to week. We, like many other folks in the area, were hurting.

The rumblings of a new port project — a huge, 600-acre complex just north of Southport, one capable of serving tens of thousands of cargo containers a day — reached our ears, and, for a moment, the prospect of a new port project and all it promised — hundreds of jobs preparing the site, hundreds more building the infrastructure, hundreds more finishing it off and still hundreds more working the docks and cranes — looked to be the boon Southport and Brunswick County needed.

The port project, if it went through, would pump millions of dollars into the local economy, deliver massive tax returns over the ensuing decades and provide hundreds if not thousands of secure jobs for the foreseeable future. It seemed like a golden opportunity.

Looked. Seemed. These are the optimal words here.

At coffee break and over lunch, we talked about the project. How big is the site? Where is it? Can they really deliver the thousands of jobs they’re talking about? What do the roads look like with hundreds of trucks on them every day?

We didn’t have answers, but the more we asked our questions, the more holes we saw in the positive stories spinning through the local media. Little did we know, concerned Southport citizens, led by Rhodes Messick, were asking the same questions. And they didn’t like the answers they were hearing.

Messick and a handful of others went to a public meeting with the Port Authority, where they had the opportunity to speak with representatives presenting the proposed port in all its golden glory.

“Walking through the room with them, we kept hearing the same things from different PR people, advisors and consultants,” says Messick. “The port would provide thousands of jobs. The port would not only fill the economic gap left by the construction industry, but it would fill it to overflowing. The port would encourage growth. The port wouldn’t change Southport’s circumstances much at all. Naturally, we had questions and we asked them.”

At table after table, they asked and received an earful of double talk.

Messick says they heard this line more than once: “That’s a great question. We don’t know the answer to that, but we will find out.”

“That got us going,” he says. “A few of us decided then that we needed to make a real effort to oppose the port project.”

A dozen people joined an informal steering committee, and Messick began the process of creating a 501c3. They called themselves No Port Southport.

It wasn’t long before more and more members of the greater Southport community began to ask the same questions and come away dissatisfied with the answers they were receiving. As they formalized, they raised funds to be used to promote their cause and push for answers from the Port Authority and Army Corps of Engineers.

“The [Army] Corps of Engineers weren’t objective in the stance they were taking regarding the proposed port,” Messick explains.

According to him, the Army Corps of Engineers had a stake in supporting the port project. The proposed port required a massive amount of dredging, a complex set of facilities and infrastructure elements, and dozens of unforeseen elements, all of which would add up to a very lucrative contract (and set of subcontracts) for the Army Corps of Engineers if they were to win the contract. To win the contract, they needed to support the project. To No Port Southport, the conflict was obvious, made even more so by comments made by a number of individuals within the Corps.

“Even though their official stance was in support of the port, most of the individuals we spoke with expressed doubts, and it didn’t appear there was much internal support, at least not with the men and women who’d be doing the work, for the port,” says Messick.

As new information became known, No Port Southport released statements and press releases. As funding increased, they created shirts and signs and bumper stickers (my father-in-law’s truck sported one almost immediately). As the Steering Committee looked deeper into their questions, they commissioned impartial third-party investigators to uncover some truths.

“We focused on a core of six questions and they directed just about everything our Steering Committee, researchers and volunteers did,” says Messick.

The questions were these: How will the port be kept safe and secure? How many new jobs will it actually create and how many will it support? What are the infrastructure requirements for the port? How will it impact the environment during and after construction? What will the impacts be to the health of local and regional citizens? What are the true economics of the port, factoring in construction, infrastructure, tax incentives, taxes and ongoing maintenance and comparing those numbers to profits?

Breaking down those six questions, No Port Southport saw even more cause for concern.

“Take the safety question,” Messick says. “The site abutted the nuclear power plant; how do they keep that safe from attacks and other security risks? The structures and ships could possibly interfere with the intake canal, which delivers one million gallons of water a minute to the reactors to keep them cool; what happens if there’s a problem? Sunny Point [Military Ocean Terminal] is just up the river, what concerns do they have? How do they plan to check, scan and adequately test inbound and outbound cargo? They already can’t keep up with Wilmington or any other port, how would they adequately keep up with one that’s bigger than the one just upriver?”

And each of those questions spawned more questions.

“The initial jobs reports from the Port Authority claimed 477,000 or so jobs created and supported by the port. We questioned that publicly and challenged them to justify it. Their next report said 98,000 jobs.”

Even at that drastically reduced number, 98,000 jobs would have been a godsend to southeastern North Carolina. But with that “absurdly large” number of jobs, as Messick calls it, came problems, particularly pertaining to infrastructure.

The 600-acre site, which was secured by the Port Authority, was just north of Southport, with a decrepit two-lane road being the only way on or off the property. If their cargo projections were correct, they’d put 3,000 trucks a day on the road, congesting highways 211, 133, 17 and I-40 (and especially the already congested causeways between Leland and Wilmington) and having an unknown impact on traffic along these roads.

N.C. Department of Transportation would need to widen the road to the port. They’d need to build another entrance or exit to handle the traffic load. The roads themselves, especially highways 211 and 133, were not designed for that volume of traffic and would require massive improvements and changes, including the possibility of replacing every bridge and causeway between Southport and Highway 17 and widening both roads to be two lanes in either direction. The port officials said they’d be using railroads for half of their cargo, and projections on the trains that would run to and from the port on a daily basis (or even more frequently) said they’d be a mile or more in length and require untold logistical solutions to reduce delays on the highways and railways around. To do all this would require an unprecedented upsetting of the natural landscape in Brunswick County.

“Who knows the irreversible damage they would have caused Brunswick County just by putting in the necessary infrastructure to support the port,” Messick says. “The port itself would destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands and marsh along the river. The ships’ exhaust, fuel and waste runoff would foul the waterways. Their constant traffic would clog the channel and have unknown effects on Bald Head Island and Caswell Beach.”

Environmentally as well as logistically, it would be a nightmare, he says. It would take years to construct the port, even more years to bring highways 211 and 133 up to date, and even more to truly measure the impact it would have on the environment. Not to mention the billions of federal and state tax dollars such an undertaking would require.

Reports from towns in California and other U.S. locales with similar port projects came back and showed that the toll of the port wasn’t just environmental or inconvenient, it showed that in port communities, the public wasn’t as healthy, that lifestyles changed, that living there just wasn’t the same.

“I came to Southport in 2000,” says Messick. “My wife and I had sailed down from upstate New York, looking for a place to retire. Southport ended up being that place because of the beauty, the solitude, the people here. The port would’ve ruined that for us and hundreds, maybe even thousands, of other people like us.”

Then there’s the economics of it all. Building the port and supporting infrastructure would cost how much? What tax incentives did it receive? What taxes did it pay?

“What were the projected economic benefits of the port? That was a key question, but one we didn’t get a real answer to no matter how often we asked it,” says Messick.

Messick never even mentioned tourism, a major economic driver in Brunswick County. In 2012 tourism pumped in $445,860,000 in revenue and $47,390,000 in taxes collected; supported 4,850 jobs; and provided $80 million in payroll revenue. What if the roads were clogged with trucks and the beach view was of container ships? The negative economic impacts from this alone would countermand projected gains from the port.

Then, after several years of fighting the port, almost overnight talk of the project dwindled then disappeared. Funding that was earmarked for it was diverted elsewhere. It appeared that the project was dead in the water.

“We saw a victory, but didn’t want to act the minute we heard the news we’d wanted to hear,” says Messick. “We waited, cooled out for a while. If we’d have prematurely shuttered No Port Southport and they decided to go forward with the port, we’d have been in a bad position. So we waited. Now, five and a half years later, we’re confident that the port project is dead.”

No Port Southport was dissolved in early October 2013. Their remaining funds, some $2,400, were donated to the North Carolina Coastal Federation, a group dedicated to protecting our coastal environs.

Today, my father-in-law’s truck, which I now drive, still has the No Port Southport bumper sticker on it. When I see it, I’m reminded of the hard decisions many people had to make regarding their own stance on the port. What do they sacrifice, their bucolic lifestyle and the beauty of Southport or the potential economic gains from years of construction? The environment or the pocketbook? The present or the future?

Messick and many others, from his dozen Steering Committee members to my in-laws, would agree that to stand up and fight for Southport and Brunswick County was the right thing, that to protect what we have here was the just and noble fight.

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