PALMETTO -- Gov. Rick Scott told a crowded room of local business owners, officials and maritime stakeholders Friday afternoon that investment in Florida's ports will pave the way for recovery.
And none are in better position to reap the benefits than Port Manatee, he said.
As the keynote speaker for the ground-breaking of the Berth 12 extension and container yard, Scott took his first tour of Port Manatee on Friday, speaking to business leaders at an economic development roundtable afterward.
The governor said Florida should emerge as the gateway for international trade into the U.S., leveraging the estimated 2014 completion date of the Panama Canal expansion and recent population growth in Latin America.
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The $13 million project now underway at Port Manatee is designed to do just that.
The 10-acre container yard will eventually grow to 52 acres -- aimed at attracting new shipments expected in accordance with a recently completed dredging project that opens the door to container-sized ships.
"Try and find a port in better position," Scott told
the roundtable Friday. "You have all of these things going for you. If you outwork everyone else and have good leadership, it will bring revenue. Investment into our ports are one of our best opportunities."
Berth 12 is the focal point of South Port -- the focus of a $200 million, decade-long expansion at Port Manatee to allow for larger cargo ships.
The new berth becomes the port's first dedicated container terminal, allowing the quasi-government agency to tap into a new source of revenue.
The project also will create 595 construction jobs and another 180 permanent jobs upon completion, port officials estimate.
Funding is through a share of state grants, $9 million worth of federal transportation help and $1.2 million of the port's own cash.
Once completed, Port Manatee will become Florida's closest deepwater port in proximity to the Panama Canal expansion -- a rare opportunity for the county.
"Hundreds of jobs will be created right here in Manatee," said Paul Jaenichen, deputy administrator for the U.S. Maritime Administration. "A fully integrated transportation system is absolutely key to the economy -- maximizing opportunities in rail, highway and water."
As expected, the focus of Scott's roundtable was job growth. He believes the role of Florida's 15 seaports shouldn't be diminished in that equation.
The state's investment in expanding its seaport system has grown about 278 percent in the past year to $562.7 million, according to Scott's office.
The visit to Port Manatee on Friday was part of a statewide workday program, where he has spent time touring warehouses, cattle ranches and even picking oranges.
The business leaders participating in the economic roundtable pitched questions ranging from incentive funding to education and health care. The answer almost always came down to "return on investment."
Scott pointed to the rowing facility in north Sarasota as a prime example. One year after vetoing the project, the state contributed $5 million after a report showed $12 million would be given back each year in sales tax collection.
He also led a charge to bolster funding for Visit Florida. The tourism marketing arm now carries a $54 million annual budget -- up from $34 million the year before. But at least one job is created for every seven visitors, magnifying its importance, he said.
Another common request from local officials was help with the Port Connector Road, a proposed highway to run east-west from Port Manatee to Fort Pierce. The project has been stuck in design phase, where its battling tall federal regulations.
Officials thanked Scott for his leadership Friday. Now they hope that investment into the port system pays off.
"We are begging for business," said Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore. "We want business, and we need the support."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman