Container-on-barge service a boost for port

A new service for Itawamba County’s port could potentially bring big business to the area, according to Itawamba County Development Council Executive Director Greg Deakle and Itawamba County Port President Harvey Clements.

Preliminary plans are in place for Itawamba County’s port to begin offering container-on-barge shipping by the end of the summer. The service will allow companies that regularly ship their products via highway to transport them along waterways.

The service will be open to businesses within a 60-mile radius, allowing them to send and receive shipments via the port. Currently, these businesses are having to transport materials and product via Highway 78 to either Memphis or Birmingham.

The primary benefit to companies using the Itawamba County port for transportation rather than shipping back and forth out of Memphis is one of cost. Although shipping rates and times between shipping via waterway and shipping via highway are comparable, the former is a lot less complicated. Six tow boats can ship enough 40-foot containers in one year to rival 50,000 trucks.

“That’s one tow boat versus four locomotives versus 50,000 trucks. When you start adding the numbers up, it’s really impressive,” Deakle said.

Deakle asserted that helping remove so many trucks from Mississippi’s highways can help solve a number of problems facing both companies and other drivers.

“I’m not saying we’re going to eliminate 50,000 trucks from the road … But the companies would have a shorter drive, less traffic and less time involved in getting in and out of Memphis versus getting in and out of Fulton,” he said. “They can reduce their fleet size, insurance cost in addition to making four trips over here for the cost of two going to Memphis.

“Distributors will be able to load a container weighing as much as 60,000 pounds in China and ship it all the way to Fulton before it ever hits the highway,” Deakle continued. “Right now, they’re loading 40,000-pound containers, shipping it all the way to the west coast before railing them to Memphis and then hitting the highway.”

Off the shelf
According to Deakle, the service has been a point of interest for years but only really became feasible for Itawamba County with the opening of Alabama’s $350 million container terminal in Mobile last October.

“Now the world has changed. Since Mobile has started offering this service, it’s piqued a lot of interest,” Deakle said. “Container-on-barge is something I’ve looked at for more than 10 years. I looked at it when I was still working down on the coast. My predecessors here looked at it, so it’s kind of been something that’s been sitting on the shelf that everybody’s played with. I think every port in Mississippi has looked at it at some point in time.”

After approximately 14 months of planning and work, Deakle and Clements have finally begun offering the service to potential customers. Deakle said he met with several such entities last week and is extremely optimistic by the results of that meeting. He has also been contacted by several other businesses interested in using the county’s port, from as far away as Louisville.

“There are a lot of companies that know what we’re doing — furniture companies and others,” Deakle said. “If we can get enough companies behind us and get the containers … we’ll be in good shape.”

Deakle said that if the container-on-barge shipping service works out, it could mean big things for Itawamba County and nearby areas.

“It will help businesses be able to grow and retain employees,” Deakle said, adding that initial numbers show a potential 800 jobs within the port’s coverage area that would be created due to company expansions, 400 jobs that would be retained due to companies being able to remain open and approximately 1,000 warehouse and distribution jobs, all because of the new service.

He added that companies utilizing the service may also choose to build distribution centers in Itawamba County to further save on costs.

“The more you think about it, the more it makes sense,” Clements said. “There are so many opportunities out there to be on the cutting edge … This thing is moving forward very quickly.”

Deakle agreed, saying that the service marks the beginning of dozens of opportunities for Itawamba County.

“We would love to see the first barge dock in Fulton on the Fourth of July; it’s that close,” he said. “We think we have the right idea. It’s working for us. We’re excited about what it’s going to do for our existing businesses, and we’re excited about what the future will bring.”

Adam Armour can be reached at 862-3141, by e-mailing adam.armour@itawamba360.com or by visiting his blog at itawamba360.com.

Adam Armour/The Itawamba County Times