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South Texas ports buoy local economy
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The booming South Texas ports of Corpus Christi and Brownsville contribute millions to local economies and to Texas and provide thousands of jobs through their related industries.

The seventh-largest in the United States, Corpus Christi's port employs nearly 40,000 Texans a year, who provide $2.2 billion in income for families throughout the Coastal Bend, according to the 2003 Port Economic Impact Report by Martin Associates, a Pennsylvania-based economic consulting firm. Businesses related to the port include barge lines, oil refineries, crane services and stevedoring companies that load and unload ships.

Corpus Christi's port and related industries paid more than $195.4 million in state and local taxes in 2003, according to the report. In 2003, cargo hit 85 million tons, up 7 million tons from 1994, when the port issued its last economic impact report. Petroleum and petrochemicals are the port's top commodity, and tonnage increased by 4.7 million tons from 1994 to 2003.

While oil has historically been the top product at Corpus Christi's port, officials are working to diversify their cargo.

Ruben Bonilla, chairman of the Corpus Christi Port Commission, said port officials want to attract more container traffic and consumer goods to the port.

Build it, they will come
One diversification project in the works, the La Quinta Trade Gateway Container Terminal, could cost up to $350 million and would handle shipping containers for items such as cotton, electronics and vegetables to and from Mexico, Central and Southwest Texas, Latin America and Asia.

Once operational the La Quinta project could handle 1.5 million containers, which are measured in 20-foot equivalent units, or 6.1 meters, of cargo. By its 10th year, the La Quinta container terminal could generate 6,000 jobs and provide $27.2 million in state and local taxes, according to a 2004 economic impact report by Martin Associates.

Jason Weeks, vice president of Valls Shipping Co., a Corpus Christi-based ship agent, said if the port can attract the shipping lines to the La Quinta terminal, it will help business.

"If you can get one ship line to come, others will come," he said. "That would help us all."

Crossing the channel
The big bucks come with bigger boats. To accommodate larger ships that can bring more cargo, the port is seeking federal funding assistance for $200 million in channel improvements. The project would widen Corpus' ship channel from 400 feet to 530 feet across Corpus Christi Bay. It would deepen the channel from 45 feet to 52 feet--making Corpus Christi's port the deepest in the Gulf of Mexico and allowing larger ships into the channel, said Greg Brubeck, the port's deputy director of engineering services.

Trade winds
In June 2004, Bonilla and Port Executive Director John LaRue visited China and met with authorities at ports in Hong Kong, Nanjing, Shanghai and Wuhu to establish sister port agreements and discuss business opportunities. The Port of Corpus Christi is positioning itself to be the home port for distributing cargo and goods to Latin America, Bonilla said.

"Strategically and geographically, the Port of Corpus Christi is closer to the new trade Meccas, which are the Caribbean nations, Mexico, Central America and South America," Bonilla said.

Brownsville's future
Just 125 miles south of Corpus Christi, the Port of Brownsville straddles the southernmost tip of Texas at the end of a 17-mile channel that meets the Gulf of Mexico. The port facilities help move cargo from the U.S. and Mexico to Europe, Asia and the rest of the world.

The Port of Brownsville has more than 274 related businesses and industries that provide more than 7,000 jobs, making it one of Brownsville's top employers.

Donna Eymard, deputy port director of administration, said the port does not have any reports or figures on its economic impact on the community.

Jason Hilts, president and CEO of the Brownsville Economic Development Council, said the port is an economic engine for the region.

"Being that it's the only port along the U.S.-Mexico border is a tremendous asset," Hilts said. "It means jobs for Brownsville because of the proximity to Mexico. That's where our future is at the Port of Brownsville."

About 90 percent of the cargo delivered to Brownsville's port goes to Mexico. Petroleum and related products account for most of the port's cargo, and 628,000 metric tons moved through the port from January 2003 through May 2004. Steel is the second most common product shipped, with 420,000 metric tons moved through the port for the same time period.

Shrimp and steel
Home to more than 275 shrimp boats, Brownsville's port harvests the fifth-largest amount of shrimp in the U.S. The shrimping industry adds $80 million to the Brownsville economy, said Raul Besteiro, the port's director and CEO.

In recent years, however, South Texas shrimpers have lost business due to rising fuel prices and foreign shrimp sold at below-market prices, Besteiro said.

In July 2004, port officials sent letters to U.S. senators asking for legislative solutions to help the ailing industry.

Steel prices, which have risen 76 percent since January to $617 a ton in June, have also hurt Brownsville. The price hikes began in January and reflect soaring Chinese demand for steel, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Mexican automobile plants buy the bulk of the steel shipped to Brownsville's port, said Bob Ostos with Brownsville-based Dix Industries, a terminal operator and stevedoring company.

"The primary user of the Port of Brownsville--the Mexican steel users--were not importing," Ostos said. "It's really cut into the amount of vessels and cargo that we handled for the first half of the year."

During that time, Ostos said his company handled about 10 percent of the steel it handled during the same time period in 2003.

Staying competitive
Brownsville port officials also are seeking federal funding for a project that would deepen the eight-mile entrance to the port's channel from 42 feet to 55 feet.

The proposed $200 million project could take 10 to 12 years to finish, Besteiro said. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must first conduct a feasibility study, which could take five years.

Since it is smaller than ports in Corpus Christi and Houston and does not have refineries, the Port of Brownsville must work hard to be competitive, Besteiro said.

"We compete with everybody," Besteiro said. "If I don't make the effort to make the best pitch to my customers to get the material here, somebody else will. We have to make sure that our prices are the prices that will bring the material to Brownsville."

Karen Hudgins