COLUMBUS — Overall tonnage shipped on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway was up about 2% in 1998 despite a downturn in commodities shipments related to problems in the world economy that have reduced U.S. exports.
Don Waldon, administrator of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority, said total tonnage shipped on the waterway in 1998 was 9.3 million tons compared 9.15 million tons in 1997.
“Frankly, we were pleased with that,” Waldon said. “The waterway has increased each year since it opened. We were a little concerned about this past year for two reasons. One is that the steel dumping — the foreign imports of steel — has had a major impact on the U.S. steel industry. Steel products are one of the fastest-growing commodities shipped on the waterway. For the past six months of the calendar year you could see a significant drop off. We wound up having a net increase, but it was nothing like we predicted.”
The second area of concern was adverse impacts to the paper and pulp industry from the decline in exports to Asia. Forestry products are the number one commodity shipped on the Tenn- Tom. About 3.7 million tons of forestry products were shipped in 1998 compared to 4.5 million tons in 1995.
Forestry products are the number one agricultural product produced in Mississippi most years, vying with poultry for the top spot. The downturn in forestry exports to Asia has impacted the state’s pulp and paper industry. Waldon said he expects shipping on the Tenn-Tom to recover, but there has been an impact from the depressed world economy particularly in the paper and pulp industry.
Major economic developments in Mississippi are related to the shipping available on the Tenn-Tom. For example, Kerr-McGee in Hamilton is undergoing a $57-million expansion, the second expansion in two years at that plant. The plant, which produces 160,000 tons of titanium dioxide per year, is in the process of building their own private barge terminal on the Tenn-Tom.
“They have already been using the waterway, but this will give them direct access,” Waldon said. “Waterways are the cheapest way to ship raw materials like chemicals, coal, agricultural products, cement, and production materials. The state of Mississippi has been blessed from the standpoint that the state not only has access to ports in northeast Mississippi, but also to ports on the western side of the state along the Mississippi River, and to deep-water ports along the Coast. We’re finding that more and more companies are beginning to recognize the benefits that water transportation offers them.”
The Tenn-Tom will see increased shipments in the year 2000 when the Boeing plant in Decatur, Ala., goes into production to build the Delta Five Rocket. Waldon said some predict the Boeing Plant will have a positive economic impact comparable to the Mercedes plant in Alabama. About 2,000 people will be employed at the Boeing plant.
Mississippi is also seeing benefits from the Boeing plant. Alliant Techsystems, which is located at the Tri-State Commerce Park (the former NASA facility at Yellow Creek on the northern end of the Tenn-Tom) has won a $1.7-billion contract with Boeing to produce the nose cone and center body of the rocket, as well as other parts. After being manufactured the parts will be shipped by barge to the Boeing plant in Decatur for assembly. About 400 jobs are being created at Alliant Techsystems.
“Company officials said the Tenn-Tom was one of the two primary reasons for Boeing locating the plant in Decatur,” Waldon said. “These rockets manufactured in Decatur will be placed on a specially constructed ship that can operate in shallow as well as deep water. The completed rockets will be transported down the Tenn-Tom out into the Gulf of Mexico for delivery to Florida and California.”
Another new industry at the Yellow Creek Port, a state-owned facility on the northern end of the waterway, is Ferrous Metal, a steel service center. The facility splits large coils of steel into different widths for specific uses by other industry. The $15-million plant created 30 new jobs.
RECREATION WORTH MILLIONS
The waterway is also having a major impact on state tourism. Waldon said recreation activities are far beyond expectation. In 1998 the waterway had about 3.5 million visitors days of recreational use representing a tourism-spending impact estimated at $200 million.
“I think most of us do not have a true appreciation of the economic impact of recreation and tourism,” Waldon said.
Charleigh Ford, executive director of the Columbus Lowndes Economic Development Association, also said the recreational use of the Tenn-Tom has been greater than expected.
“There has been a tremendous amount of recreation, and that has had an economic impact,” Ford said. “There is a lot of fishing and pleasure boating. We are in the process of getting ready to build a marina here that will capture more of that business.”