When Wiley Blankenship gives officials from around the state a tour of the Alabama State Docks in Mobile, he never fails to see a look of surprise in the guests’ eyes.
“You know when you go to show somebody something and you’re hoping they grasp everything they’re saying?” Blankenship said. “And the lightbulb comes on so they can help you sell it?”
He recently had that experience with Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth when he took a tour of the state docks in Mobile.
“Let me tell you, the lightbulb came on quickly with him,” Blankenship said. “He said ‘This is incredible. I never knew.’”
Blankenship, president and CEO of the Coastal Alabama Partnership, hopes to get that reaction a lot from legislators as he works to secure matching funds to dredge and widen the shipping channel to make way for bigger ships and more traffic.
“The state Legislature has to come up with money to match dollars for the federal match,” Blankenship said. “Alabama’s portion, a 25 percent match, is about $140 million to $150 million. We have to have it as a region, and that’s why CAP is doing this.”
CAP’s effort is hoping to convince lawmakers to make some provision from a new gas tax — provided one is passed in the upcoming legislative session — toward funding the match money. All told it’s about a $600 million project, and if the match is met a federal grant will cover 75 percent.
“Who knows if they are going to fund this as part of the infrastructure investment that they are talking about?” Blankenship said. “We don’t know but we know it’s got to be funded. We don’t want to be paying. The dredging won’t happen without the 75 percent federal match. You’ve got to have it. We’re just being cautious and we’re trying to be strategic about doing this.”
He said work on the channel would further expand the capacity of the docks and allow for more traffic in and out, and that the channel needs to be deeper to accommodate bigger ships.
“Right now, you can only get one ship in and you’re four hours waiting to get one ship clear through the channel before you can bring another one out or another one in,” Blankenship said. “If we don’t widen it as part of that it’s going to put us at an economic disadvantage of being able to be globally competitive like we’ve been.”
The challenge, Blankenship said, is convincing lawmakers this is needed for the entire state, not just Mobile and Baldwin counties. To that end, 60 legislators are coming for a two-day visit to look over the port and several businesses along the waterfront, including Airbus.
“If you’re asking them to vote to create $140 million to $150 million, there’s probably going to be a lot of questions,” he said. “We’ve just got to impress upon them ‘this is your port, this is how it affects different parts of Alabama’ and a $22 billion to $23 billion economic impact to the state and about 126,000 jobs.”
NOTE: The print edition of this article incorrectly quoted the number of jobs attributed to the Port. The correct number is 126,000.