PORT MANATEE -- An international trade hub intended to lure domestic and international companies to Port Manatee will be open for business by summer's end.
The port plans to use the bulk of 30,000 square feet of office space in the nearly empty Port Manatee Intermodal Center to establish a trade-based business incubator. Thought up by port staff over the past few months, the hub will offer low-cost office space to companies involved in international trade.
Port staff and a network of companies that specialize in moving goods via truck, locomotive, airplane and ship will also form a virtual "help desk" to assist shippers, distributors and manufacturers move their goods around the world.
Carlos Buqueras, the port's executive director, said the effort is intended to give internationally and Manatee-Sarasota headquartered companies local space and expertise to build their national and international markets. Providing low-cost office space that doesn't come with a lease could be a big
expansion or relocation inducement for companies dipping a toe into the Southeast Florida market.
"We can bring them in there and get them up and running on a pilot program basis," Buqueras said.
The hub will resemble an information technology incubator, where startups have access to cheap office space and market expertise as their businesses get off the ground. Having a trade hub at the port should help attract businesses to Manatee County and its growing port.
"Otherwise, these companies would stay in Miami and Fort Lauderdale," Buqueras said.
The first tenant under the trade hub program is GM&L, a consulting company that is leading an effort to bring several Spanish manufacturers to Manatee County. At the outset, the port is looking to bring about 10 tenants into the trade hub.
Buqueras said the hub concept is unique to Port Manatee. While some ports do have international trade centers, such as World Trade Center Miami at Port Miami, Buqueras said such membership organizations have a relative high cost of use. Port Manatee's trade hub will dispense trade advice at no cost and will provide offices for below-market, month-to-month rent or in exchange for in-kind services.
Subject matter reaching the help desk could include questions on import duties, regulations around shipping cargo via air freight or broad inquiries about the entire international shipping process. Port staff will take the questions and do the research needed to come up with answers. No new employees will be hired to staff the help desk.
Al Redlhammer, president and CEO of freight forwarder and logistics company Seariders Brokerage Corporation in Mirimar, said he believes the trade hub will give needed exposure to Port Manatee. An occasional guest speaker at the port who has seen it develop over the past 30 years, Redlhammer said the concept should work as long as the consulting portion of it doesn't play favorites or blur lines between the port and trade logistics companies.
"You might have a conflict of interest there," he said. "You could get a paranoid response from the industry."
Buqueras said that when it comes to giving advice from the trade help desk, the port will have a wide portfolio of industry experts on hand who have agreed to be resources. And, when trade hub users and other companies come to the help desk looking for shipping logistics partners or warehousers, the port will give multiple references to provide inquirers with a choice.
Businesses operating in or planning to operate in both Manatee and Sarasota counties will be candidates to use the trade hub or the help desk. Buqueras said some services may be extended to companies in other counties as well.
Outbound and inbound overseas trade missions are expected to drum up interest in the trade hub. The port is planning one such mission in September to Catalonia, Spain.
The 13-year-old intermodal center has plenty of room to host trade hub offices. Built for $5 million to host offices for port tenants, the building can be expanded if the need for additional office space arises. Currently, 15,000 square feet of warehouse space on the first floor of the three-story building is used to store the port's tourist trolley.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.