Nicaraguan canal's impact not on Port Manatee radar

PORT MANATEE -- The prospect of a giant shipping canal being built across Nicaragua isn't something Dave Sanford thinks about every day.

It's not because he doesn't find the idea interesting.

He's just skeptical.

A Nicaraguan canal is an old idea, going back at least a century. Sanford, Port Manatee deputy executive director, said he has seen the idea come around more than a few times during his career.

The former chief with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said he believes the

latest iteration of the long-planned canal seems serious, but is such a late starter it may not be financially feasible given the recent expansion of the nearby Panama Canal.

And even if it was fiscally possible, he can't imagine it would have much effect on business at Port Manatee.

"From a day-to-day perspective, it's not terribly impactive for us," Sanford said. "We're primarily in the north-south business."

Port Manatee does most of its shipping business with Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico region. While port officials have been planning for the opening of a new, third set of locks in the Panama Canal, the prospect of a second canal to the south hasn't entered the port's business plan.

Much of port trade is in bulk commodities such as aluminum and building materials, fertilizer components and fresh fruits and fruit juice. Most of these cargos ship and trade within the Americas.

Future industrial development around the port could bring greater demand for trans-Pacific and canal-borne business.

Air Products, a company that produces giant condensers to liquefy natural gas, is one such company. It opened a factory across the street from Port Manatee in 2014 so it could more easily ship its machines to clients around the world.

Sanford said a new canal could have an indirect impact on the port. Having traveled to Managua, Nicaragua's capital, several times on official business, he believes the Nicaraguan government sees the canal as a way to grow the nation's economy.

That might rub off, at least in a small way, at Port Manatee.

"Jobs created from a new canal would spur a lot of economic activity in Central America that could create more trade between Central America and West Coast of Florida," he said.

Still, if a second canal is built, Port Manatee would likely be prepared to handle many of the massive ships that could pass through it. The port is planning to deepen it shipping channels and berths to accommodate ships with drafts of 40 feet or greater. It is also rebuilding 10 berths at an estimated cost of $62 million.

The projects are related, in part, to the Panama Canal expansion. The canal expansion is expected to widen and deepen the canal to allow more ships to pass through it.

Matt M. Johnson, Bradenton business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.

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