The city's small economic successes may help explain why Jasper County has patiently spent more than two decades inching toward a dream development: a $500 million seaport on the Savannah River, which divides South Carolina and Georgia. Now some supporters fear the port won't happen because of political bickering between officials from shipping rivals Charleston and Savannah.
"Economically, we have been so stagnant that anything that opens is a big deal," said Paul Bathe, a struggling sign printer who heads Hardeeville's Chamber of Commerce. "It would definitely be devastating to the county to not have that port happen."
Although no concrete figures are available, officials agree the proposed 1,500-acre port would give a serious economic boost to an area of South Carolina where jobs so are scarce that many commute across the state line to work. The Port of Savannah, for example, employs about 1,000 workers from Jasper County and neighboring Beaufort County.
Port officials from Georgia and South Carolina plan to meet Tuesday in Savannah, just across the river from Hardeeville, to discuss the future of the proposed port. Both states agreed four years ago to build it together.
But now the states have new governors, new port leaders and perhaps a reason to quarrel. State-run ports in both Savannah and Charleston are scrambling for federal permits and funds to deepen their harbors to make room for supersize cargo ships expected via the Panama Canal after 2014.
Jasper County has been caught in the middle because South Carolina has raised some objections to Georgia's plans to deepen the Savannah River. Recent letters between the states' port chairmen suggested South Carolina may withdraw from the Jasper County project unless Georgia changes its plans for Savannah's harbor.
Bill Stern, chairman of the South Carolina State Ports Authority, said in a Feb. 18 letter it would be pointless to keep working on the Jasper County port under the existing Georgia harbor plan. That's because it proposes using the Jasper County site for dumping mud and sediments dredged from the riverbed.
Stern and other South Carolina officials argue that dumping dredge waste on the Jasper County site, which the Army Corps of Engineers proposes to do for 50 years, would make it unsuitable for building a port.
"I cannot, in good conscience, recommend that South Carolina continue to spend funds on this project until these matters are fully and formally resolved," Stern said in his letter to Georgia Ports Authority chairman Alec Poitevint.
Georgia officials deny they're out to sacrifice Jasper County's port dreams in order to develop Savannah's port, just 7 miles upriver. Poitevint said dirt scooped from the riverbed and dumped at Jasper County will be used to raise the site's elevation, which must happen before port facilities can be built there.
"Putting that dirt on the ground makes it much more economically viable," said Poitevint, who also argued the move would save at least $300 million compared to hauling in dirt by truck.
Stern said he plans to attend the meeting with Georgia officials Tuesday. He insists he's not out to kill the Jasper County project, but wants answers on how deepening the Savannah harbor might ultimately affect Jasper County. A final proposal on the Savannah port isn't expected before the end of the year.
If South Carolina walks away from the plan, restarting the port project could be difficult, said Kim Statler, a South Carolina economic developer. Even under the most recent timeline, the port would not open until 2025.
"If it stops now and we have to politically regroup, there's definitely fear within this community that everybody takes their ball and goes home and the Jasper site turns into something we have to do something else with," said Statler, director of the Lowcountry Economic Alliance.
Gary Hodges, mayor of Ridgeland in Jasper County, blames both states for being unable to get past a long-standing rivalry. Savannah surpassed Charleston in 2006 as the nation's fourth-busiest container port.
"They're trying to figure out who's got the bigger stick," Hodges said. "And we in the middle here in Jasper County are going to lose if they keep playing that game."
Located across the river from Savannah and 76 miles southwest of Charleston, Jasper County gets by as little more than a pit stop on Interstate 95 for travelers seeking gas and fast food.
The county's per capita income is just $17,162 - one of the lowest in South Carolina and 36 percent less than the national average. Its largest private employer is Wal-Mart, though most of Jasper's 23,200 residents work outside the county.
"You can open up any paper and you won't see but maybe 10 jobs," said Russell Broome, who works at his sister's Hardeeville thrift store and sells peaches by the road each summer. "Most people that live here have to travel to Hilton Head and Savannah to work."
The port and its promise of jobs has always loomed far on the horizon. For years, county officials fought legal battles in hopes of developing the port themselves. They were opposed by Georgia, which owned the land, and South Carolina, which insisted on state control of shipping.
The fighting seemed finished in 2007. Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue joined South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford to announce their states would develop a joint port in Jasper County, sharing control of the project and its costs. They've spent plenty on the site since then, including $7.6 million to buy the site from Georgia's transportation department.
The governors envisioned Jasper County as an engine for future port growth after the ports in Savannah and Charleston eventually run out of room to expand.
"This is an economic region and we will either sink or swim together," Sanford said then. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, who took office in January, has said he wants the states to cooperate on port growth.
However, new South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley sounded a scrappier tone last November when she addressed a port event in Charleston days after her election.
"You now have a governor who does not like to lose," Haley said. "Georgia has had their way with us for way too long, and I don't have the patience to let it happen anymore."