RUSKIN -- Opening day at Amazon's new distribution center in Ruskin this week put about 1,000 people to work and has Manatee County's port director primed to go after the giant retailer's international business.
Nina Lindsey, a spokeswoman for the Seattle-based company, said Wednesday's "orange carpet" opening started with local Amazon leadership cheering on new employees and high-fiving them on their way into the 1 million-square-foot pick, pack and ship warehouse facility.
While Lindsey said Amazon will not disclose how many new employees are Manatee County residents, the distribution center has been anticipated as economy booster since the company announced in June 2013 it was coming to Ruskin. The $200-million facility was built to distribute smaller retail goods such as books, DVDs, toys and small kitchen appliances to Amazon customers.
"We found great talent in the area," Lindsey said.
Because the center is only 7 miles north of the Manatee County border, county economic development officials and homebuilders have heralded the massive work
force hiring as a boon to the area. About 375 of the positions at the center are expected to pay an average annual salary of $47,581, while the overall workforce should earn about 30 percent more than they would in the retail industry, according to the company.
Homebuilder saw a need
Those pay levels are part of what inspired Lakewood Ranch homebuilder Neal Communities to apply for a permit to build a 1,999-home community on Moccasin Wallow Road called the Villages at Amazon South. The project expected to be made up of homes starting in the mid-$100,000 range, received approval from the Manatee County's Planning Commission last month.
As warehousing and shipping work gets into full swing under a giant roof plainly visible from Interstate 75, Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras said he is anxious to get a piece of Amazon's business. The distribution center ships goods domestically and internationally, something Buqueras hopes to leverage into a partnership on warehousing and shipping. He said he wants to sell Amazon and its suppliers warehouse space available for lease at the port. Amazon may be able to use the space during peak season, while suppliers may want to have nearby warehouses to more quickly fill orders.
Amazon may also find the port attractive for shipping to and from South and Central America.
"It's too early to tell," Buqueras said. "Nevertheless, we are in a position -- being the closest port to the Amazon facility -- to serve any import or export needs they may want to consider."
Cuba, in particular, could become a shipping destination for the distribution center, Buqueras said. With one of the highest literacy rates in the Americas, the Communist nation should have a high demand for books if it opens its economy to the United States.
The port will wait until Amazon "settles in" its distribution center before approaching the company to talk about any business partnerships.
The Ruskin center is not the only Amazon location in Florida. The company ships larger goods out of another distribution center in Lakeland.
$6 million in incentives
Hillsborough County approved more than $6 million in incentives for the distribution center.
Employment at the center is expected to increase as the holiday season approaches. Lindsey said that is the peak of annual business for Amazon. She would not say how many seasonal employees the Ruskin facility will hire, but said Amazon hired more than 70,000 seasonal employees during the holidays last year.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.