INSIDE TALK FROM THE SOUTHEAST

INSIDE TALK FROM THE SOUTHEAST

CAN'T YOU JUST see it?

It's 1999. Massive new containerships are flowing along the Savannah River to and from the two most modern container terminals on the East Coast. There is George Nichols, executive director emeritus of the Georgia Ports Authority, leaning against Savannah's famous Waving Girl statue as if to help her beckon the ships to Georgia's Mulberry Grove terminal.But over on the other bank of the river - the South Carolina side of the Savannah - sits Don Welch, executive director emeritus of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, with a sign attached to his fishing rod, proclaiming: Keep moving. Only 10 more miles to South Carolina's North of the Border Terminal. Free fireworks.

Far-fetched? Perhaps, but it's possible that someday the Georgia and South Carolina port authorities, already two of the hottest competitors in the port industry, could have container terminals along the same river and only a couple of miles apart.

The Georgia authority has an environmental impact study under way for its planned development of the 2,200-acre Mulberry Grove property. And although officials at its counterpart 120 miles up the coast in Charleston are scarcely rushing to build along the Savannah, they did cosponsor a study assessing the environmental feasibility of constructing a terminal on the river's South Carolina side.

The study - conducted by the South Carolina Coastal Council, which did not weigh such economic considerations as rail and highway access - found a 742- acre site about 10 miles upriver from downtown Savannah where a terminal could be built. The study said the property could accommodate 3,500 feet of berthing, backed up by 200 acres for storage, with another 300 adjacent acres available for industrial development.

Interestingly, Georgia port officials have come out in support for the idea, and why not? To market the terminal, South Carolina would have to play up the same infrastructure and access routes of which its arch-rivals in Savannah have been boasting for years.

* * * * *

A TIP OF THE HAT, if I wore one, to Maria Saporta, business writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for accomplishing something no other reporter has managed to the best of my knowledge - dragging a lively quote out of the GPA's Mr. Nichols.

It's not that Mr. Nichols is a bad interview subject. It's just that he tends to be extremely cautious verbally when dealing with the press.

Anyway, Ms. Saporta recently wrote one of those Savannah-Charleston port competition stories, in which she quoted Mr. Welch as saying he was a born- again port director after implementing a consultant's reorganization recommendations.

Mr. Nichols, however, doesn't believe in allowing outside consultants to plan his port's operations. Informed of the statement of his friend in Charleston, Mr. Nichols grumbled: I was born once, and I'm going to die once.