Port Manatee has been growing rapidly. Here’s why it could be just the beginning

Port Manatee, which has been rapidly growing its business in recent years, appears to be among Florida ports best positioned for the future. The reason: location, land and facilities availability.

And it’s not just Port Manatee staff saying that.

Nick DeVito, a partner in Ian Black Real Estate who specializes in office and industrial properties, recently presented an analysis of Florida ports to the Manatee County Port Authority.

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The Del Monte cargo ship Hornbay puts in at Port Manatee 52 weeks a year to unload cargo. The port annually imports 48 million pineapples, and more than one billion bananas. Bradenton Herald file photo

It was an eye-opener, said Manatee County commissioners, who sit as port authority members.

Among the positive signs DeVito sees for Manatee and Sarasota:

Port Manatee offers delivery advantages over ports in Miami and Jacksonville. In a four-hour drive, millions more population can be served from Port Manatee — 18.6 million, compared to 11.8 million in Miami and 14.2 million in Jacksonville.

Miami-Dade County, Broward County and Palm Beach County are nearly out of land that can be developed, while Manatee and Sarasota have plenty of land, particularly around Port Manatee.

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Flatbed trucks haul tons of imported lumber from ships to a warehouse at Port Manatee. Other important deliveries at Port Manatee include fuel, fruit, and raw materials, such as aluminum. Bradenton Herald file photo

Port Manatee is the closest port to the Panama Canal.

The economics of Manatee-Sarasota are sound. Sarasota is the second-largest area for relocation of wealth in the United States. There is no real estate bubble on the foreseeable horizon. More than half of residential closings in Manatee-Sarasota are cash transactions.

Driving the need for more distribution centers and warehouses is e-commerce, which is expected to increase 48 percent between 2018 and 2021. For each additional $1 billion in e-commerce sales, another 1.25 million square feet of distribution space is required.

Benderson Development recently requested approval to expand its International Trade Port facility in Ellenton by another one million square feet to meet the demand for Class A space. Another recent addition of industrial flex space is Harrod Properties’ Gatewood Corporate Center at Lakewood Ranch.

Vacancy rates for industrial flex space in Manatee and Sarasota dropped from 7.4 percent from 2014 to less than 3 percent through the end of 2017, DeVito said.

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The container ship Falmouth discharges produce and other cargo at Port Manatee, which has seen its business fortunes improve in recent years. Bradenton Herald file photo

“This was a fabulous presentation,” port authority member Betsy Benac said. “This is all about business and jobs, and trying to meet the needs of our customers. What are the challenges we have at Port Manatee? We have land and plans for expanding roadways.”

The biggest challenge is getting the word out that Port Manatee has the facilities and the location that business needs, DeVito said.

“Everyone is jumping at Lakeland,” DeVito said.

Lakeland, which does not have a port, is centrally located and has lots of land and industrial flex space available along Interstate 4.

“Somehow we have to get their attention,” DeVito said of businesses looking to expand their presence in Florida, the nation’s third largest state, which is seeing 1,400 more people a day calling the state their home.

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Flatbed trucks were haul tons of imported lumber and other cargo from ships to a warehouse at Port Manatee. Bradenton Herald file photo

Port Manatee now supports 24,000 jobs and generates more than $2.3 billion in annual economic impacts for Manatee County. Millions of dollars will be invested in the port in the near future to expand and improve facilities there.