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Port Royal residents still subsidize the 11th Street shrimp dock, but not as much as in previous years, according to the town manager.
By next year, the dock could be self-sufficient, Van Willis says.
The dock operated at a loss of about $25,000 in the first two years after the town took over its operation, but a better collection rate on $300 monthly docking fees has reduced the deficit to about $10,000, Willis said.
An increase in fuel sales, on which the town charges 7 cents a gallon, has also reduced the deficit.
A strong growing season has allowed some shrimpers to make an early profit and pay the fee, according to Port Royal Shrimp Co. owner Mark Smith, whose shop is at the dock. When the white shrimp season arrives in August, he hopes to see a bumper crop.
"People can't afford to pay (fees) if they don't have the money," said Smith, also president of the S.C. Shrimpers Association. "Shrimpers are just working to make ends meet."
The rising tide has not lifted all trawlers: Two boats at the dock are not working, and one shrimper can't afford to take his out.
Willis said the town tries to work with shrimpers in those cases, and about 70 percent of the boats -- shrimping vessels and others -- are current on their docking fees. The town started using contracts with owners about a year and a half ago, which aids fee enforcement, he said. If boat owners don't pay, they could be banned from buying fuel or, in extreme cases, even from boarding their boats, Willis said.
The town could soon own the dock but be out of the business of running it, if a proposed sale of the Port of Port Royal goes through. The Port Royal Development Group is attempting to buy the property from the S.C. State Ports Authority for $17 million, with plans to close the deal by the first week of July.
Willis said discussions are under way with local and regional companies interested in operating the docks, and he intends to seek proposals as soon as the port purchase is completed. An agreement could include cost- or labor-sharing for dock repairs or profit sharing for the town or both.
An operator could decide whether to keep the monthly dock fee or opt for a small packaging fee -- such as 25 cents per pound of shrimp -- to be levied on seafood unloaded at the dock.
A packaging fee would raise more money than the monthly dock fee, said Smith, who previously operated the 11th Street shrimp dock. It would cost shrimpers more, but if they don't have to write the monthly checks, they wouldn't notice the difference as much, he said. The fees are tax-deductible business expenses.
"The town needs to understand the way they're running the shrimp dock now, they're never going to make their bills," Smith said. "Just off my shrimp last year, they probably could have run this dock all year."