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Corpus Christi Port Strong Despite Weak Area Economy

July 18, 1987

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas (AP) _ The Port of Corpus Christi, awash in profits, travels against the prevailing economic current along the Gulf Coast, hit hard by the decade’s oil bust.

The port remains profitable, even in bad times, thanks to a fee structure established a half century ago.

The port has agreements with most industries along its channels allowing it to charge wharfage fees on cargo crossing private docks. Most ports charge fees only on public docks.

″The important distinction between us and a lot of other ports is they have private docks and public docks, but they don’t make any money on their private docks,″ said Col. Nolan C. Rhodes, engineering services director for the Port of Corpus Christi Authority.

To be sure, oil plays an important part in the port’s profits, which totaled $6.3 million in 1986, with petroleum and chemicals representing 92 percent of total cargo tonnage.

Despite that reliance on oil, Corpus Christi’s ledger sheet stands out when compared to the profits of other Gulf Coast ports. For example, the Port of Houston, which handles twice the cargo of Corpus Christi and is the third busiest in the country, had 1986 earnings of $929,132 from cargo fees. Houston charges no wharfage fee on private docks.

By comparison, Corpus Christi netted $4.9 million from cargo, which totaled 57 million tons, a 9 percent increase over the 1985 amount.

Depressed oil prices have seriously affected the general Corpus Christi economy. Unemployment in the area increased from about 7 percent five years ago to more than 11 percent this year.

But the cheaper foreign oil imported through the port helps compensate for weak local and international markets for other products.

″The lower price of oil means more imports,″ said Harry G. Plomarity, executive director of the port authority.

Wharfage charged on oil at public docks is 4 cents per barrel. The charge is 2 cents per barrel at private docks.

In 1986, petroleum and chemical tonnage increased by 12.8 percent at the Corpus Christi port, while dry cargo and grain tonnage decreased by 17.4 percent.

Channelside facilities at the port make the area appear like a petrochemical complex. Huge, black mounds of petroleum coke, a fuel made from the end product of oil refining, dot the shoreline. A chemical odor permeates the air.

Officials are proud of the foreign-trade zone that opened at the port last year. Already profitable, it was only the third zone in the nation to include oil refineries and the first in the continental United States.

The zone allows oil companies to avoid customs duties on foreign petroleum brought in to be refined for export to other countries. If the refined product is sold in the United States, the refiner does not pay the duties until the it actually leaves the foreign-trade zone and enters the U.S. market.

The zone has 15 sites, including two oil refineries. Other refiners are trying to have the zone expanded to their areas, Plomarity said.

Officials recognize the economic hazard to being totally dependent on the oil industry. They are attempting to bring a wider variety of cargoes and already have shown some success.

New commodities attracted to the port last year include soybean meal, soybean oil, calcium fluoride, sodium nitrate and scrap metal. The port expects growth in cotton exports this year because falling prices have made U.S. cotton competitive in the world market. The port handled 6,440 tons of cotton in 1986.

Ironically, when the port opened in 1926, cotton was its principal commodity. That changed with the discovery of oil in South Texas during the early 1930s.

The Corpus Christi port managed to attract a new U.S. Navy home port to nearby Ingleside by deepening the port channel to 45 feet. The Navy installation is expected to boost the area economy and bring in more business, Plomarity said.

Less than five miles of the port’s 36.5 miles of channel remain to be dredged to the 45-foot depth, said Plomarity. He said the project will be finished within two years.

″We’ve resolved all the environmental problems, so now it’s just a matter of getting the dredging done,″ he said.

Officials hoped to establish a ″Dock One Market″ in two unused cargo docks to attract tourists to the area. But the plan was set back in mid-June when a feasibility study determined that not enough people would visit the area to make the market a success.

Port officials now are looking at entertainment and restaurant businesses for the site. They hope the Texas State Aquarium, planned for nearby, will attract more tourists, as well as local residents.

″There’s still a need for a market,″ said marketing manager Carole Peterson Bader, ″that lets people come down and see the big ships.″

End Adv July 18-19

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