By RICHARD BURGESS
October 23, 2012
franklin — St. Mary Parish officials are courting a group of Chinese investors interested in building a massive offshore port for the surge in container cargo expected after the opening of the expanded Panama Canal in 2015.
St. Mary Parish President Paul Naquin said Monday that he is traveling to China later this week to present a preliminary study that outlines the advantages of locating the port off the coast of his parish.
The selling points include easy access to the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway shipping channel and the Atchafalaya River, rail lines, the four-lane U.S. 90 running through the parish and an oil-and-gas workforce that is accustomed to building and servicing offshore facilities.
“We have some real good stuff to offer them,” Naquin said.
The discussions about the port are still in the very early stages, but Naquin and other parish officials have already made one prior trip to China in July for meetings about the project.
Naquin said he was approached earlier this year about the project.
He said the driving factor is the widening and deepening of the Panama Canal, a project that will allow much larger cargo ships to pass through the canal into the Gulf.
“They are looking at bringing 5 million containers here a year,” said St. Mary Parish Economic Development Director Frank Fink.
Several existing ports along the Gulf Coast, including the Port of New Orleans and the Port of Houston, are upgrading facilities in anticipation of increased cargo traffic.
“None of them are capable of handling the volume that would come our direction from the Panama Canal,” Fink said.
The new port facility being considered would be an island of sorts about 10 to 15 miles offshore and accessed by a bridge for rail and truck traffic, Naquin said.
“You are looking at about a $6 billion port,” he said.
Naquin said the port, if built, would likely employ more than 2,000 workers, mainly U.S. hires.
“God only knows the impact it will have on the entire region,” Fink said.
Parish officials have worked the past few months to prepare a preliminary study on locating an large offshore port in the area, including a review of existing infrastructure as well as regulatory hurdles involved in building a facility and bridge in offshore waters.
Naquin said he plans to present that study either Friday or Saturday at a meeting in Beijing with a group that will include representatives from China Communications Construction Co., a major construction and design firm that specializes in ports and other transportation projects.
The purpose of the meeting is for the group to decide whether to move forward with a more intensive feasibility study on the project, Naquin said.
“Hopefully, we’ll come back with some good news,” he said.
Naquin said if the group opts to take closer look at St. Mary Parish, the feasibility study would take from 18 to 24 months.