Port Manatee, Port Tampa Bay competition grows after conference snub

mjohnson@bradenton.comMarch 21, 2014 

PORT MANATEE -- Officials at the opening reception for an international pineapple conference hosted by Port Tampa Bay wasted no time Wednesday night when they ejected Port Manatee's representative at the door. It was hardly the sort of welcome associated with the fruit, a traditional Southern symbol of hospitality.

Matty Appice, the port's senior director of trade development, was met by a Port Tampa Bay official and a security guard at the reception table at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel and Marina. Although Port Manatee had paid to register him for the event, Tampa port personnel and the event organizer, the International Pineapple Organization, turned Appice away because the event has a "one-port policy."

"It's the first time I've ever seen security at a networking event," Appice said.

The snub was the crescendo in a spat between the two ports over the conference. Last week, IPO officials rescinded the port's registration for the event, stating that it would allow only one port to attend the pineapple industry event. Port Tampa Bay is hosting the event at the hotel and on port property.

Emails obtained by The Herald under Florida's Sunshine Law show that IPO did not want to turn Port Manatee away. An IPO representative indicated in one of the emails that it did not want to jeopardize its relationship with Port Tampa Bay. The IPO also rejected registration from Port Canaveral.

Port Manatee is the largest importer of pineapples in the state, and the only port on the Gulf Coast to handle the tropical fruit. It brings in about 80,000 tons of pineapple each year for Fresh Del Monte, a client that leases production and warehouse space on the port's property in Palmetto. Fresh Del Monte was one of the conference attendees, according to Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras.

Although port officials

knew Appice might be turned away, they were still surprised when the issue came up at Thursday's regular Manatee County Port Authority meeting.

Port Commissioner Robin DiSabatino said the move probably comes out of jealousy. She noted that Port Tampa lacks land to grow its business, while Port Manatee has thousands of acres surrounding it slated for industrial development.

"They're just a little nervous that the new kid on the block is growing," DiSabatino said.

Commissioner Betsy Benac was blunt in summing up the situation. She said it's time for Port Manatee to compete hard for business and build itself into south Florida's most desirable port.

"We need to show them that we can beat them," Benac said.

Although the two ports do partner on training their security forces and on navigation issues, port Commissioner Larry Bustle said he believes the schism between the ports is intractable. During the two years he served as chairman of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, he said the council had no trouble getting most competing businesses and entities to work together on building their business.

The only exception was Port Tampa Bay, which refused to work with the council.

"We were rebuffed," Bustle said.

Chairwoman Carol Whitmore struck the most conciliatory note at the meeting. She said she still hopes Port Tampa Bay will see fit to work with Port Manatee as a business and marketing partner.

"This is just a little blip," Whitmore said.

The two ports have sparred over other issues recently. Late last year, the Manatee port authority got wind that Port Tampa Bay was interested in absorbing Port Manatee in a merger.

Authority commissioners voted unanimously to resist any such effort.

Port Manatee has an opportunity to be the more reasonable party in the dispute. Commissioners suggested that the port hold its own pineapple conference, inviting all other ports - including Port Tampa Bay. IPO co-founder Will Cavan offered in an email this week to bring his conference to the port as early as next year.

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