Port Manatee

Port to become Florida's big refrigeration gorilla

PORT MANATEE -- In 2017, a giant, new refrigeration building will open on port property, positioning the port as one of the five biggest cold-storage ports on the East Coast. And it won't cost Port Manatee a dime.

On Tuesday, the Manatee County Port Authority signed agreements under which Montreal-based steveadoring company Logistec will build the warehouse. Logistec will pay half of the estimated $17 million construction cost and will handle all aspects of the warehouse's construction. The Florida Department of Transportation will pay the other half, up to $10 million.

Planned to span more than 148,000 square feet, the warehouse will be the largest of its kind at Port Manatee. Fresh Del Monte, a longtime fruit shipper and processor at the port, is expected to use the building to store and process imports, including pineapple, bananas, melons and other tropical fruits. Logistec already moves Fresh Del Monte from ships at the port into existing cold-storage facilities there.

Andre DuBois, Logistec's Port Manatee operations director, said his company takes on the expense of building the new warehouse to free up room for more fresh food customers. Fresh Del Monte currently uses much of the port's 207,000 square feet of refrigerated space.

"Right now, there's such an

influx of import during the winter months, it's difficult to bring in new customers," DuBois said.

The agreements, which lease acreage to Logistec and assign operations of the to-be-constructed warehouse to the company, were over a year in negotiations. Approved unanimously by the port authority, they still require the signature of Logistec CEO Madeleine Paquin. The company's board of directors has already approved construction funding for the project.

Authority chairwoman Carol Whitmore couldn't get the measures OK'd quickly enough.

"For all the ports in the surrounding areas, we want them to know we have lots of room for pineapples," she said.

Port Manatee is not the only Suncoast port with designs on the fruit business. Port Tampa Bay, with which Port Manatee has nursed a rivalry over the past 18 months, announced plans earlier this year to build its own $20 million refrigerated warehouse.

The pineapple has become emblematic of the rift as Port Manatee, a major pineapple importer, was not invited to a pineapple shipping conference at Port Tampa Bay last year. Port Tampa Bay does not currently import pineapples, nor does it own refrigeration space.

Port Manatee executive director Carlos Buqueras, said the port stands to earn $1.1 million from warehouse operations in its first year. While that's the same as it gets from Fresh Del Monte's activity now, more revenue will come in as the space the company vacates is used for other food cargo.

The port also gains an asset with the agreement. It will own the warehouse once it is completed.

The warehouse venture is something new for Logistec. Although the company has built warehouses in many of the 33 ports where it loads and offloads cargo, it has never built one designed for cold storage.

The warehouse detailed in this week's deal is downsized somewhat from earlier plans. Previously, port officials said the warehouse could span 200,000 square feet and cost as much as $26 million. It was later downsized to better fit Fresh Del Monte's operations.

The groundbreaking is expected by the end of 2015, according to DuBois.

In a separate construction agreement approved at Tuesday's meeting, the authority affirmed an earlier handshake deal with Gulf Coast Bulk Equipment to build a paved materials storage pad. The $1.2 million project, funded in part by the state, will bring fertilizer company Mosaic back to the port after an absence of more than a year

Mosaic had used the port for some of its shipping for years before breaking with another steveadoring company in 2013.

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