TAMPA -- In a closed-door meeting Thursday, a group of Tampa Bay port officials were able to set aside their difference to design a plan to market the area to international shipping lines.
The 90-minute gathering was the first in a series of planned meetings between executives from Port Manatee, Port Tampa Bay and the Port of St. Petersburg.
Moderated by Richard Biter, assistant secretary of intermodal systems development for the Florida Department of Transportation, the initial meeting gave the three ports a start on fixing an identity crisis that has long plagued the Tampa Bay region. Simply put, potential overseas clients know Florida through Miami and Orlando. Tampa Bay is relatively unknown.
Biter said the three ports need to build name recognition in a world that primarily knows Florida for its ports in Miami and Jacksonville.
"We're helping our ports to compete in a very, very competitive world market," he said.
The goals of the talks are to further a positive public image and private communications about the relationship between the ports, to begin crafting a joint marketing campaign and to develop a regional leadership structure. Those objectives were laid out at an Aug. 13 meeting FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad called to convince port leaders to work together on marketing.
Thursday's meeting, held at FDOT's District 7 headquarters, drew Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras, St. Petersburg Executive Director Walter Miller, and the general council and vice president of government affairs from Port Tampa Bay.
Port Tampa Bay CEO Paul Anderson did not attend. The meeting was closed to the public and media.
Buqueras said the discussion was productive, particularly where it came to giving Port Manatee greater worldwide exposure. A globe-trotting salesman for the port, Buqueras has found overseas customers don't know where Manatee County is. He said he often refers to Port Manatee as "Orlando's port" to express the general location and service area in a way clients in Brazil, Spain and Mexico can relate to easily.
Marketing Tampa Bay as a single destination for shipping could allow Buqueras to be more accurate in his future descriptions.
"I think that we will increase the level of attention to the Tampa Bay area, and to Manatee and Sarasota," he said.
The marketing effort will likely start with the ports designing and publishing a joint marketing brochure, something Biter said FDOT will help facilitate.
"We don't want to be perceived as some sort of overseer on this," he said.
Thursday's meeting marked the official start of a new relationship between the ports, two months after the August meeting cleared the air between Port Manatee and Port Tampa Bay on several contentious issues. Biter said that first contact achieved its goal to "pop the balloon" and "put everything out in the open."
It came just weeks after Port Tampa Bay escorted Port Manatee's marketing director out of the opening cocktail event for a pineapple conference it held in Tampa. Port Manatee was barred from participating, even though it imports about 80,000 tons of the tropical fruit each year.
The two ports also came into conflict in 2013 when the Manatee County Port Authority approved a resolution to resist any attempts by Port Tampa Bay to absorb Port Manatee in a consolidation. The action was based in unofficial reports Port Tampa Bay officials had made inquiries about consolidation through Gov. Rick Scott's office.
The next tentatively scheduled meeting between the parties is in December. Biter said the participants are "playing it by ear" when it comes to a longer-term meeting plan.
Buqueras said he will make himself available for all future meetings, as the leadership of the three ports "made the commitment to be present at the highest level" in August.
Biter said he expects the meetings to remain informal and generally closed to the public. That would change if the participants choose to create an official regional port organization, or if elected port commissioners begin attending.
Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.