Florida seeks port expansions as way to boost exports

Medill News ServiceJanuary 2, 2014 

Port Manatee has benefitted from the export boom in past five years

By DIANA BLASS

Medill News Service

Florida's well-situated location, coupled with strategic government investments, produced a record year of exports in 2012, giving light to the state's potential to become a global gateway for trade.

"The markets that are laid out and structured properly will gain competitive advantage until there is a new change," said Tony Carvajal of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, who said the Sunshine State was making the right decisions to compete with emerging trade economies in Asia.

In the past 10 years, Florida saw a 166 percent jump in exports, growing from $24.9 billion in 2003 to $66.2 billion by 2012. It ranks as the sixth largest exporting state.

Port Manatee has benefited from the export boom.

The port reported increases in its export tonnage of about 17 percent over the last five years.

Between 2009-13, its total exported tonnage increased from 822,321 to 962,549, up by about 140,228 tons, according to Virginia Zimmermann, a spokeswoman for the port.

The approximate investment in the port's infrastruc

ture over the same period was about $40 million, including $20.6 million for channel dredging; $6.1 million for an intermodal container yard; $7.7 million for dredging of Berth 12; $1.4 million for security enhancements/surveillance; and $3.2 million for pipeline crossing, Zimmermann said.

From 2009, the starting point for the Obama administration's National Export Initiative, through 2012, Florida's exports of goods grew 41 percent, compared with national growth of 46 percent, according to federal trade data.

"I've always believed that if you have a geography like Florida, you're destined to become a major cross-world," said Manny Mencia of Enterprise Florida, a public-private partnership that supports trade in the state.

Florida is home to 15 deepwater seaports, and its exports are led by computer and electronic parts at $14.5 billion in 2012, transportation equipment at $10.3 billion and primary metals, such as gold, at $8.5 billion. The state has 225 international trading partners; half of Florida's exports travel to Latin America and the Caribbean.

"The government has been focused on infrastructure so that when business is there, Florida can take advantage of it," Carvajal said.

The 2008 financial crisis hit Florida's economy hard. International exports dropped by more than 13 percent, from $54.2 billion in 2008 to $46.9 billion in 2009, and high unemployment plagued the state, reaching 11.4 percent in December 2009.

Today, the state has an estimated 500,000 trade-related jobs and the unemployment rate rested at 6.7 percent in October, slightly below the national average.

"We are at a pivot point," Carvajal said. "This is the point that will make a difference in the next generation."

Current investments include a series of renovations at the state's seaports, such as a $2 billion makeover at the Port of Miami and a $38 million upgrade at the Port of Jacksonville.

The $5 billion expansion of the Panama Canal might increase trade with Asia. Florida is renovating its ports to accommodate the large ships that will pass through the canal.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce said that the canal, along with other new opportunities, might create an additional 150,000 trade-related jobs by 2018.

"This will be a huge impact on ports and jobs created," said Sean Helton of Enterprise Florida.

-- The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Bradenton Herald reporter Sara Kennedy contributed to this story.

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