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Official from Panama visits Port Manatee

MANATEE — Port Manatee hosted a high-ranking Panamanian official Monday, the latest in a series of exchanges that local officials hope leads to more cargo going through the port.

Jaime Eduardo Aleman Healy, Panama’s ambassador to the United States, met with port officials and local business leaders, posed for photographs and toured the 1,100-acre facility that he called “a beautiful port.”

“I see the many advantages you can offer the shipping companies,” he said, after port officials and U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Sarasota, hosted a private tour. “I was amazed how organized everything is, how efficient the operations are.”

Local officials hope shippers who use the Panama Canal feel the same way, and call on Port Manatee more frequently once a $5.25 billion canal expansion project is finished in 2014. About 15 to 20 percent of the port’s cargo tonnage now passes through the Panama Canal.

Officials say Port Manatee’s proximity — it’s the closest U.S. deepwater port to Panama — and room to expand will make it attractive to shippers.

“What a big opportunity we’ve got here for economic diversity,” Buchanan said. “This is all about jobs.”

But as Aleman’s visit shows, port officials are not simply waiting for opportunity to knock.

Last year, they signed a two-year strategic alliance with the Panama Canal Authority to increase trade by soliciting shippers through collaborative marketing and information sharing. Port officials hope that helps attract container lines, third-party logistics providers and distribution center/warehouse developers to and around the port.

Buchanan and Aleman spent the past weekend in Panama, where they toured the canal and met with key governmental and business officials. Buchanan, a member of Congress’ Panama caucus, said a free-trade agreement that would lift Panamanian tariffs on U.S. imports is being negotiated.

And more is in the works.

A contingent of Port Manatee officials and local business executives are planning a three-day trade mission to Panama later this month. And a seminar featuring U.S. and Panamanian business officials discussing trade possibilities is planned for April 19 at a Sarasota hotel.

Those efforts, like Aleman’s visit, show how far Port Manatee has come, said David McDonald, executive director of the port.

“It’s the maturing of Port Manatee ... to be recognized at the highest levels,” McDonald said.

Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.