PORT MANATEE -- Having recently been at odds over rumors about a consolidation action against Port Manatee, a snubbing at a pineapple conference and an argument over which port is closest to the Panama Canal, the deepwater seaports located on Tampa Bay have agreed to bury the hatchet and cooperate on three new points. Almost.
During an Aug. 13 meeting in St. Petersburg called by the Florida Department of Transportation, representatives from Port Manatee, Port Tampa Bay and the Port of St. Petersburg committed to make no further "disparaging remarks" about one another, to develop a regional leadership group and pursue a joint marketing strategy for the bay area.
This week, elected officials serving on the Manatee County Port Authority proposed a couple changes to those points of agreement, one grammatical, and the other to make business between the ports more cooperative. The changes came up Thursday during the first discussion the port authority has held concerning the meeting.
Of particular concern were the limitations on speech the anti-defamation clause could place on the port. Port Manatee and Port Tampa Bay have previously sniped at each other over consolidation and which has the greatest growth potential, among other issues.
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Board member Michael Gallen said the phrase "disparaging remarks" is open to interpretation and could cover everything from an accusation of wrongdoing to stating a fact, such as Port Tampa Bay levies property taxes while Port Manatee does not. He also said he doesn't want the port's slogan "The RIGHT Turn on Tampa Bay" branded as being negative.
"I wouldn't ever make a disparaging remark, however that's a very vague term," Gallen said. "One person may be
playing up a strength, while another person is hearing a disparaging remark."
Board members agreed to submit alternative language to the other ports and to FDOT under which Port Manatee officials would pledge to "conduct relations with regional ports in a professional and supportive manner."
The board's second addition to the action items that came out of the meeting was a pledge to refer business that doesn't fit Port Manatee to the other two ports. The ports differ somewhat in the services they offer, with Port Manatee doing most of its business in bulk cargo versus the big cruise business at Port Tampa Bay and the research emphasis at St. Petersburg. Port executive director Carlos Buqueras said his staff has been doing this all along, but praised the board for making it policy.
"We'd rather keep it in house, in the state of Florida," Buqueras said. "It is in the DNA of the ports to do the referral."
FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad called the Aug. 13 meeting in order to stop the three Tampa Bay ports from competing against one another and to pursue business in a regional manner that could help the region compete against bigger ports in Mobile, Ala., Houston and the Caribbean.
Port Manatee will send its suggested changes to the three-port action plan to the ports and FDOT.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.