The Georgia Institute of Technology is considering establishing a logistics program in Panama.

A presence in the Central American country could help the university recruit top-notch students in the region and capitalize on an extensive logistics infrastructure and the upcoming expansion of the Panama Canal, according to Harvey Donaldson, director of Georgia Tech’s Supply Chain & Logistics Institute.

Although no formal agreements have taken root, plans could include a dual master’s degree program with a local university or an educational partnership with the Panama Canal Authority, said Chelsea (Chip) White, chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Industrial & Systems Engineering, which oversees the supply chain institute.

Because the canal is the most important passageway for goods coming from Asia through Georgia’s ports, “it’s natural for us to be thinking about some activity in Panama, but we don’t know what it is yet,” Mr. White told GlobalAtlanta.

Mr. White, Mr. Donaldson and other officials have visited Panama to explore opportunities there, and they said momentum is gathering behind the idea of a Georgia Tech presence at some level.

Panamanian government officials have suggested that the school start an operation in the City of Knowledge, a business park in Panama City that offers various incentives to attract universities, international organizations and technology and knowledge-based companies.

Mr. Donaldson said his two trips to Panama have involved productive talks with the Organization of American States, a group of leaders from the Western Hemisphere that works to strengthen democratic values in 34 countries.

Also, a thriving Georgia Tech alumni community in Panama supports the idea of seeing their alma mater a little bit closer to home.

Despite the widespread support, Mr. White said it could be months before a business plan is developed that balances educational concerns with funding demands.

Meanwhile, Panama is developing its logistics infrastructure even further. The $5.25 billion canal expansion will deepen harbors and add a new set of three-step locks on both coasts that will double the canal’s capacity by allowing the world’s largest ocean vessels to pass through it. To prepare for greater trade flows, three ports on the Atlantic coastline and one on the Pacific are buying new cranes and accumulating off-loading and storage capacity. The Panama Railroad Co. is betting on more business from smaller ships opting for transshipment across the isthmus to avoid hikes in canal fees.

The Panamanian government and private companies are investing heavily in the Colon Free Zone, a free trade zone that facilitated the flow of $16 billion in trade during 2007, second only to Hong Kong.

State-of-the-art warehouses are sprouting up there alongside mom-and-pop facilities, and a new four-lane highway will link Colon with Panama City by next year.

As these plans progress, global trade patterns continue to show the strategic value of Panama’s location, especially for Georgia Tech and the state of Georgia.

About 80 percent of cargo coming from Asia to the U.S. East Coast flows through the Panama Canal. Much of that originates from ports in Shanghai, China, and Singapore, where Georgia Tech has logistics “outposts.” Mr. White said. With strong logistics programs in Savannah, Panama is Georgia Tech’s only real missing educational link on that vital trade route.

Page Siplon, director of Georgia’s Logistics Innovation Center in Savannah, is a Georgia Tech graduate, and he has worked with the school to study the feasibility of a Panama program.

If student demand supports it, the program would be in the best interest of both the state and the school, he said.

“I think it would be huge,” said Mr. Siplon, who has traveled twice to Panama.

He noted that a Georgia presence in Panama would help foster the entrepreneurial climate his organization promotes in Georgia, ultimately boosting import and export numbers in both places.

He thinks a Panama program would begin remotely and then move to the main campus in Atlanta to solidify before ending up in Savannah.

Mr. White said any program that arises would probably partner in some way with the state-sponsored innovation center.

“The governor’s logistics innovation center in Savannah is something that we’re very close to and partner with often, and quite frankly, we have a stake in seeing that it’s successful. Its success helps our success and vice versa,” he said.

Georgia Tech already offers an Executive Masters Degree in International Logistics for working executives around the world. That 18-month program requires students to attend five two-week residence periods, one of which is intermittently held in Panama.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...