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Gateway to the Caribbean Seeks Inland Expansion

November 21, 2011 - 6:00pm

As Floridas leadership has focused on expanding port cargo traffic with the pending completion of an expanded Panama Canal, not every one of the states 14 ports is expected to directly benefit.

The gateway from the United States to the Bahamas and Caribbean, the Port of Palm Beach hopes to be able to revive a drop in trade through the creation of an inland port that would serve as a distribution point in western Palm Beach County.

Port of Palm Beach -- What is there

Located on 156 acres north of West Palm Beach, 80 miles from Miami and 135 miles from Port Canaveral, the port is the fourth busiest container port in Florida and the18th busiest in the United States.

The port is located on the west side of the Intracoastal Waterway, immediately south of Riviera Beach, with ships entering a 33-foot deep, 300-foot wide channel between Palm Beach and Singer Island.

Considered an export facility, nearly 80 percent of the cargo -- sugar, diesel fuel, molasses, liquid asphalt and other bulk commodities -- goes out primarily to the Bahamas and the rest of the Caribbean.

The port also is home to the Bahamas Celebration cruise ship, which handles approximately 275,000 passengers annually.

Jobs: 2,428 --1,468 direct jobs, 959 indirect.

Economic impact: $260 million a year.

Taxes: $12 million, federal, state and local.

The Port of Palm Beach District is an independent, special taxing district, a subdivision of the state of Florida,which sets fiscal, regulatory and operational policies.

Desired growth:

Deepening of the inlet channel from 33 feet to between 35 feet and 40 feet, along with creation of an inland port built in collaboration with Florida Crystals Corp., West Palm Beach.

The major distribution center is proposed for 850 acres off U.S. 27 just north of South Bay.

The project would be a distribution center where freight from South Florida ports could be taken by road and rail, then stored and routed.

Florida Crystals and Glades leaders have estimated it would bring as many as 20,000 jobs.

Hindrances to growth:

Money, federal regulations and the environment.

The port itself is surrounded by residential and commercial development from Riviera Beach and West Palm Beach, limiting on-space expansion.

Public costs have yet to be outlined for the road improvements, new rail line, construction of warehouses and other port facilities that are desired for the inland port.

The Sun-Sentinel notes that inland port proposals have been dogged through the years by environmental concerns about expanding industrial development to far-flung agricultural land that once was part of the Everglades.

The Sierra Club and 1000 Friends of Florida have fought inland port sites in the past.

Seven questions with Manny Almira, Port of Palm Beach director:

SSN: Where does the Port of Palm Beach view itself in the footprint of Gov. Scotts dream to attract more growth from the Panama Canal expansion?

Almira: In our case, we are not a major Far East trade-type port. We dont have service to the Far East; Miami does, Port Everglades does.

However we can and do benefit from having Freeport about 60 nautical miles due east of us, that Far East carriers can bring in cargo, and then have our local feeder service, Tropical (Shipping), bring those containers to the U.S. mainland. Its not going to be as much as the all-water route that Miami and Port Everglades has.

Looking at it from a regional perspective, the governor keeps pushing the Port of Miami because of the portfolio of Far East carriers.

The Panama Canal's new set of locks will be bigger, that means more and more vessels will come through than normally would have been deployed. Now, those ships can come up the U.S. East Coast.

Thats one excellent component, and its a good one, but we cant forget our traditional partners, and theyre south of us: the Venezuelas and Columbias of the world, along with Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

SSN: What is the desired growth in the next five to 20 years for the port?

Almira: We created a concept called an inlet port -- a distribution point, and what wed like to explore is the possibility of having an inland port west of the county, where there is a lot of agricultural land, and the cost has to be less expensive.

Cargo would flow through the port, with final destination to the inland port, where it would be distributed to importer or exporter.

SSN: What will it take to reach this point?

Almira: At the port, we are at the mercy of the economy and we heavily depend on the Caribbean economy and ... until the Caribbean economy rebounds, we will be at the mercy of these turbulent economic times.

Our largest tenant, Tropical Shipping, is a ship company that has multiple sailings per week, and just about covers every island in the Caribbean basin.Theyre known as the Federal Express of the shipping industry. Unfortunately, since 2008, the market just isnt there. Theyre reporting a 20 percent drop in the market, their shipping is down 20 percent at the port, and Tropical represents about 40 to 45 percent of our revenue.

We would like to grow 3 to 5 percent the next five years and for it to be consistent. The Port of Palm Beach is limited to space; we have 157 acres, were about to gain another 5.

However, if you look at the Tropical Shipping model, they have a center, a distribution center, down in Miami-Dade County, they bring those containers by truck one or two days before actual sailing.

SSN: What ports and entities are offering the most competition to attract this trade?

Almira: Keep in mind were one of 14 deep-water seaports in the state of Florida; Georgia and Savannah is only one.Charleston is only one.So those states naturally gravitate to these ports and megabucks go toward them.

SSN: What is Florida doing to counter this competition?

Almira: The state of Florida has 14 mouths to feed, and so far the governor has to figure how to do this and so far hes done an excellent job.

SSN: Who are the biggest champions of Port of Palm Beach?

Almira: The sugar exporters, Tropical Shipping and Bahamas Celebration.

Bahamas Celebration serves three functions. Not only are they every other day sailing to Freeport for vacations, but also provide service as a ferry and they also carry cargo.

We also have South Florida Materials, which imports asphalt, and a medium-sized carrier called Monarch Shipping, which has two vessels that ship to and from Haiti.

SSN: What and who are some of the biggest hurdles facing the ports expansion?

Almira: Currently we're at 33 feet and as new ships get deployed today, seeking other ports, wed like to deepen our harbor to 35 to 40 feet. Wed also like to expand, open the entrance channel.

Were working feverishly with the Army Corp of Engineers, but also there are environmental concerns and local residents have made their concerns well known.

Weve made it well-known were not going to use explosives or go down to 50 feet, and were not going to go anything larger than 700 (linear) feet, which is what we currently can handle here.

Its no easy task, the amount of studies that have to be performed: economical feasibility, environmental impact, are not only time-consuming but also extremely expensive and the federal government just doesnt have much money.

The first installment of this series: "Port Canaveral Bulking Cargo and Cruise Passengers" can be found here.

The second: "Port Backers Offer Vision to Make Florida the Global Hub" can be found here.

(This is the third in a weekly series with port directors in Florida.)

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com, (850) 727-0859, or (772) 215-9889.

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