Port Manatee in great position to boost economy

January 28, 2014 

With last week's rebranding of Port of Tampa into the more expansive moniker Port Tampa Bay, a bit of heartburn might have afflicted Manatee County commissioners. They also comprise the county's Port Authority.

Port Manatee sits along Tampa Bay after all, and Manatee commissioners have expressed fears about being swallowed up by its larger neighbor in some sort of a state coup d'etat.

That would render the "Port Tampa Bay" imprint a sign of collective control over all of the region's ports, including Port of St. Petersburg and Port Citrus. Neither of those two smaller ports, however, handle cargo, the lifeblood of both the Tampa and Manatee ports.

With preemption in mind, the Port Manatee Authority went so far as to pass a unanimous resolution in November opposing consolidation with Tampa. The authority also placed opposition to the merger as its top legislative priority, signaling Manatee County's lawmakers about their strong concern.

Port Manatee and its commercial tenants have proven adept at growing business. The public agency and private enterprises have invested heavily in infrastructure upgrades. With $250 million in improvements over the past decade -- from dredging, dock expansions, giant cargo crane purchases and more -- the port will be well positioned to accept the influx of additional imports from the Panama Canal expansion.

And significant new port business is already in the offing. Just this month, Logistec, a giant Canadian-based logistics and stevedore company with a major operation here, and Fresh Del Monte Produce, one of the Port Manatee's biggest customers, revealed the two companies are on the brink of an agreement to build a massive cold-storage warehouse to house fruit. Kudos to private enterprise for driving port business.

One part of this Tampa-Manatee kerfuffle is amusing to a certain degree -- the debate over which port provides the closest American ship berths to the Panama Canal. The fact is the difference is somewhat minimal, only 14 miles, with Port Manatee being 1,102 miles from the canal while Port Tampa Bay sits 1,116 miles away.

The point is important in a marketing campaign as the Panama Canal finishes the $5.25 billion project to deepen and widen the shipping lane between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans so "post-Panamax" super-sized vessels can navigate the canal instead of navigating around South America to the United States. That expansion, which began in 2007, is expected to be complete in 2015.

Port Manatee owns the "closest" distinction and can thus appeal to shippers looking to save on the high expense of moving cargo to ports.

But the newly minted Port of Tampa Bay claims to be the closest "full service" port to Panama with its ship building and repairs as well as other offerings. A Port Tampa Bay official labeled the "closest" branding as a "friendly competition" with Port Manatee. We beg to differ as shippers could be misguided.

Though neither the Tampa nor Manatee ports can accept the new mega cargo container ships because of the low height of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge, those giant vessels will transfer containers to smaller ships in Caribbean ports, and both Manatee and Tampa can dock those crafts. Both should benefit from the growing trade with Asian countries. Port Manatee, though, has some 4,000 acres of open land ripe for development, quite an advantage of Tampa's port.

How vital is the port to Manatee County? This trade powerhouse contributes more than $2.3 billion to the local economy in ad-valorem taxes and jobs, supporting some 24,000 workers regionally.

And so we celebrate Port Manatee's administration, tenants and customers for the ongoing economic development and job growth there. And the indisputable fact that our port is indeed the closest American port to the Panama Canal.

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