Expansion needed to keep up with growth at Port Manatee. Estimated cost: $500 million

It may cost as much as $127 million over the next five years, and $500 million over the next 20 years, to build the facilities to keep up with growth at Port Manatee.

“We are no longer the sleepy little port that is not taken seriously,” port authority chair Vannesa Baugh said Thursday. “The port is ready to move up to the next level.”

Ship sizes have increased since the port opened 49 years ago, cargo handling is at an all-time high and warehouses on the 1,100-acre property are essentially full.

Discussion about the future of the port operations arose Thursday as Manatee County commissioners, sitting as the port authority, approved the $33 million capital improvement plan for 2019-2020.

Denise Stufflebeam, the port’s senior director of business administration and finance, walked port authority members through the capital improvement plan.

The biggest ticket item is $15.1 million for extension of berth four to allow two vessels to utilize berths four and five. The forecast completion date is February 2024.

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The Iwagi Island unloads its cargo of salt at Port Manatee on Thursday. Port officials are making plans to expand berth capacity to keep up with growing business demand. James A. Jones Jr.

Also planned:

  • $7.7 million for expansion of the intermodal container yard.
  • $4 million for port road improvements.
  • $2.9 million for rehabilitation of berths six, seven and nine.
  • $1.2 million for expansion of the north gate.
  • $1.1 million for the addition of six loading docks.
  • $1 million for the addition of a five-acre drop trailer lot.
  • $602,134 for railroad track improvements. Port Manatee’s short line railroad directly connects to the CSX Corp. mainline, which is less than one mile from the port’s north gate.

Port officials have met recently with U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, about port operations and expansion plans. Any improvements would be funded by port user fees as well as state and federal grants.

No homeowner property taxes are used for port operations or improvements.

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Giant cargo handling cranes stand at the ready at Port Manatee. An ambitious expansion plan is envisioned to keep up with business growth at the port. James A. Jones Jr.

Port Manatee is expected to generate about $18 million in revenue and incur about $9.4 million in expenses in fiscal 2020, Stufflebeam said.

Thus far, Port Manatee has not experienced rough waters because of the trade war tariffs between China and the United States. Most of the port’s business is between North America and Central and South America, said Dave Sanford, the port’s deputy director. Those markets have largely been exempt from the tariffs.

“We have put together a very aggressive capital improvement plan,” Sanford said.

The port’s master plan calls for the port to expand by 25 percent to the north with three additional berths and a container yard, Sanford said.

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Port Manatee is running out of cargo storage space, but has plans to add more in the near future. James A. Jones Jr.

The port already owns the land for possible future expansion, but there are significant challenges because a large part of the land is environmentally sensitive with mangroves and wetlands.

Buchanan envisions a lot of private investment to help the port continue its growth, Sanford said.

“If we don’t expand, we won’t be able to continue to grow,” Baugh said.

The port generates more than $2.3 billion in annual economic impact for the local community, while supporting more than 24,000 jobs, according to the port’s website,

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