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Though the port of Savannah is nearly 400 miles from their districts, North Georgia leaders, including new Gov. Nathan Deal, have identified improvements to the port as a top priority for every corner of the state.

"It's as close as the ocean gets to us in terms of a deepwater port," said state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton. "Folks all over the tri-state area send stuff out and bring things in through the port of Savannah."

Northwest Georgia received most of $850 million in imports and sent $96 million in exports through the port in fiscal 2010.

Now the facility faces the challenge of accommodating larger boats that will be able to pass through the Panama Canal once it is widened in 2014.

Supporters such as Bethel and Deal, who plan to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into deepening the Savannah River to give access to the larger boats, are making their case around the state.

The port "makes a lot of difference to the folks up here," Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, said. "I think most folks in the carpet industry understand. We've got to get [carpet] down there and supplies back from there."

Deal referred to the port in his inaugural address, his State of the State speech and in plenty of campaign stops last fall.

"There is no more important public works project for the competitiveness of our entire region than the Savannah harbor deepening project," the governor said in his State of the State speech. "Receiving these ships in Savannah will have a ripple effect throughout the state."

Over the past 10 years, the port of Savannah has grown from a place to export South Georgia timber to the fourth-busiest U.S. container port and what some call America's retail port.

To continue that evolution, Curtis Foltz, executive director of the Georgia Ports Authority, said the port needs the river deepened, rail and road access improved and equipment modernized.

Much of the work is under way. The port authority budgeted $1 billion from 2004 to 2014 to modernize gates and other equipment. The authority is working with state transportation officials and railways to improve access.

The 2012 budget that Deal has proposed to the Legislature commits $32 million to dredging work, pushing total advance funding to $135 million -- more than half the $240 million the state needs to match federal dollars for the river deepening.

"The state is well on its way and has done a lot of advanced funding on this," said Foltz.

The four-year deepening project was authorized by Congress in 1999, but no federal funding has been OK'd. That should come with final approval in December, Foltz said.

Assuming federal funding comes through on time, that would make the harbor big-ship-ready two years after the larger vessels are first allowed through Panama.

But North Georgia's new congressman has said he won't help secure funding.

U.S. Rep. Tom Graves, who recently was named to the House Appropriations Committee, has said the House's moratorium on earmarks would prevent him from voting for funding.

State leaders say the improvements are essential.

"It's not that we won't grow; we will lose the traffic that we have," Bethel said.

Ted Stank, a professor of logistics at the University of Tennessee, said the largest cargo ships will be looking for harbors and if Savannah can't accept them, Charleston, S.C.; Portsmouth, Va.; or other East Coast ports will.

"Once you get them through (the canal), obviously you need ports to input them," he said. "You would think that it's somewhat of a zero-sum game and what Charleston gets, Savannah loses."

Stank said spending the money to improve the Savannah facility would not guarantee success, but would seem to help.

"Like anything it's a bit of a bet, but I don't think it's that risky of a bet," he said.

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