PORT MANATEE -- Sitting in the catbird seat with better direct shipping-lane access to the Panama Canal than any other deepwater U.S. seaport, Port Manatee hopes to snag some of the ship traffic steaming through when the canal expansion is completed in a couple of years.
With $247 million worth of maritime infrastructure improvements added over a period of 15 years, Port Manatee officials say they've developed a valuable asset.
If they're right, it could mean thousands of jobs and a potent, long-term economic driver for the port, just north of Palmetto and about 41 miles south of Tampa on Florida's Gulf coast.
"This port, more than any other in Florida, has built superb, first-rate infrastructure to position the port to grow exponentially," said Carlos Buqueras, the port's executive director.
Recent developments playing in the port's favor include:
n Berth 12, the only new container berth under final construction in Florida today, Buqueras said. Construction workers are in the process of extending its dock from 1,000 to 1,584 feet.
n Construction of the first phase of what will eventually be a 52-acre yard to store cargo containers hauled aboard giant vessels coming through the Panama Canal.
n Bidding for two new locomotives, expected to cost about $3 million, to enhance the port's rail link.
n Contracts for the port to handle 175,000 tons of corn imported from Brazil, with options on about another 90,000 tons, to feed animals affected by drought in the midwestern and southeastern United States.
n A Pennsylvania company's purchase last week of land across U.S. 41 from the port for a new manufacturing plant that will employ 250 people.
Even dredged to a depth of about 40 feet, Manatee's Berth 12, dedicated last year, still won't be able to handle the largest container ships coming through the canal, which is building two new sets of locks that are expected to double its capacity in 20 years.
But officials are betting Manatee's port can attract increased volume of cargo hauled on smaller ships.
"Clearly, the big new ships we're talking about are not going to be able to come into Port Manatee," said Larry Bustle, chairman of the Manatee County Port Authority, which oversees the port. "We're not planning to dredge to 50 feet of water so they could come into Port Manatee."
"But all those new ships, with so many containers, will go to places where containers are put on smaller ships. We're thinking it will be an overall increase in business, and an opportunity for Port Manatee to share in that business."
Port Manatee officials cite what they say are numerous advantages, including more than 20 million square feet of space for warehouses and offices within seven miles of the port; an "encouragement zone" of thousands of acres, which can provide faster site plan approvals for port-related business developments; easy access to interstates 75 and 275; and about $7.5 million in improvements slated for an intersection fronting Port Manatee, designed to accommodate heavier trucks.
In coming years, Florida ports will be competing against those like Norfolk, Va., and Savannah, Ga., that, because of rail investments, are already positioned to accept even larger volumes of containers than they're processing now, said Jason Bittner, director of the Center for Urban Transportation Research, affiliated with the University of South Florida in Tampa.
"Florida is in a unique position, because of the markets we have, the 18 million people we have who live here," said Bittner.
"They're well-positioned, in that we do have Manatee and Tampa, which are very close to the Panama Canal," said Bittner. "Miami and Jacksonville have their own strategic reasons to benefit from increased containers."
But even though he did not think any Florida port would be handling the largest ships coming through the canal when its expanded locks become operational in about 2015, he predicted Florida would still benefit from fleets of smaller ships plying routes from "transshipment" facilities in Panama, the Bahamas or Cuba.
As a business model, it's certainly logical to think that Port Manatee and Port Tampa, so close to Panama, will find their niches, he said.
"I think it all depends on the economic condition in the Tampa region in particular, as a market, and the speed goods can get out of the Tampa region," Bittner said.
"It's a systems approach," he added. "If a port was most efficient, but put stuff on I-75 and I-275, and it can't get north, it doesn't help the port at all."
"Those sort of connections are going to be the key in the success of any investment in new, containerized access," he predicted.
Air Products & Chemicals, Inc., of Allentown, Pa., looked at Port Manatee, and then bought land across the street for a new manufacturing facility.
The company builds large pieces of equipment, and was looking for a solution to its transportation problems, said company spokesman Art George.
"These things are two-thirds the size of a football field," George said, referring to liquefied natural gas heat exchangers that the company makes.
The location's "ready access" to port services will simplify global shipping of its very large equipment, also allowing the company to manufacture even larger heat exchangers that are in demand, company officials said.
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.com.