Before Gov. Rick Scott sailed into the port issue by backing the Port of Miami's effort to dredge to 50 feet, Florida business interests had been ratcheting up their focus on what they say had been a forgotten secondary piece of the states economy.
The public hook -- as highlighted in the attention given to the Port of Miami -- has become that Florida ports and accompanying commercial rail and highways must be ready when the widening of the Panama Canal is completed in 2014.
But organizations such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Florida Seaports, a Tallahassee-based nonprofit corporation serving the seaports, were already sounding warnings that Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia were outpacing Floridas ports in terms of spending and planning for waterfront commercial growth.
The canal is just another area of growth that needs to be captured by the state that supporters say is perfectly positioned to be the "worlds seaport" -- at the crossroads of growing global east-west and north-south trade.
We have the hub of the world at our hands, said state Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville. We have to connect the parts into a single interest of gateway ports, to have 14 windows on the world.
Trade from Central and South America is already growing. East-west trade, brought on by modification to the Suez Canal, is also expanding the maritime market.
'ONCE IN A GENERATION'
A report by the chamber, Florida Trade and Logistics Study, released in December 2010, claims the state has a once in a generation opportunity to add 143,000 jobs to the nearly 600,000 existing port-related jobs, boosting port business by $21.5 billion and tax revenue by $723 million a year.
Ray and state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, are again teaming to file a bill before both houses that maintains the current-year funding for ports of $117 million -- the most the state has ever put up for ports.
And they hope legislators maintain that funding amount for four years.
For something that takes 8 percent of the work force, I dont think people think about our ports, Ring said. But its so incredibility significant. Its not a high-profile issue, but it's mission-critical for the state. It would have a tremendous negative impact on the state if it wasnt shored up.
Florida Seaports has projected that 17 priority projects needed to speed cargo through nine of the ports would require $853 million.
Port funding from the Legislature stood at $8 million in 2008, when Ray took office, and has been increasing ever since.
Georgia, by comparison, since 2000 has spent $1.5 billion as part of a 15-year plan to increase capacity at the Port of Savannah -- Floridas main port competition -- and Port of Brunswick.
Florida Seaports notes that 70 percent of the overseas products purchased by Floridians dont come through any of Floridas ports. Savannah alone accounts for 20 percent of the products that end up on Florida retail shelves. The number is even higher when one removes the southern portion of Florida from the equation.
If we were able to capture half the cargo from out of state, it would be huge, said Doug Wheeler, Florida Seaports president.
Ray, a marine engineer, says his vision is for the leadership of each of Florida's 15 ports to understand they will be better served in the long run by complementing each other, with Florida being seen as the global cargo transportation gateway rather than each port as an individual gateway.
The money requested wouldnt be specifically designated in the bill for any port, but rather made available when a project comes on line that fits in the vision.
We have to be engaged or were not going to be engaged at all, Ray said. Youre either going to invest with a plan or youre going to be left out.
Ray said that even though the ports make up roughly 8 percent of the states work force, because they are often in relatively small areas spread out across the state, they are often overlooked as an economic engine.
We have the chance of creating 150,000 jobs by getting our share of the (shipping) market, Ray said. Its about another 3 percent of the work force. And these are jobs that pay about 20 percent higher than an average-paying job.
Florida Seaports has estimated that the 17 priority projects needed to improve the states port-rail system would generate 32,509 permanent jobs, 14,639 construction jobs, and 30,233 industry-related jobs.
Legislators have already taken steps to expedite the state regulations process so that a shipping company seeking to relocate to a Florida port may get necessary building contracts and permit approvals in about six months, when it used to be nearly two years.
Like Ray, Scott sees Florida becoming the main shipping destination for the East Coast.
We are clearly going to continue to be the travel destination for the world, thats going to continue to build jobs, were going to continue to have a great agricultural business, Scott said when asked last week about Floridas port makeup. If we want to increase the standard of living in our state, weve got to figure how to manufacture more things in our state or ship things through our state.
Scott said the $75 million invested in dredging to the magic 50 feet depth at the Port of Miami, which he expects the federal government to eventually repay, is just part of an overall transportation network system needed to achieve this shipping vision.
Building infrastructure, our ports, our rail -- our cargo rail not our passenger rail -- making sure we have the right highway system, were going to keep doing it, Scott said.
The 50-foot mark has become the industry benchmark for major ports -- targeted also by Freeport and Corpus Christi, both in Texas; New York and Baltimore -- as a means to handle the larger cargo ships now being built. Boston and Savannah are planned to go down to 48 feet.
The depth has already been reached by the Port of Virginia in Norfolk, which highlights the 50-foot mark on its website along with a comment that the port is only 22 days' transit from Asia and 47 hours by rail to Chicago.
Only Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale is also planned to reach that depth.
JaxPort in Jacksonville has plans to reach a 45-foot depth, up from 40 feet. Port Tampa is at 43 feet and Port Manatee stands at 40 feet.
Regardless of the depth, Wheeler said the goal eventually is to be able to market Florida as the destination where freight can be unloaded and transported to anywhere in the eastern half of the nation within two days.
If you dont do it, you definitely arent going to get it, Wheeler said.
Floridas Seaports: Port of Pensacola, Port Panama City, Port St. Joe, Port of St. Petersburg, Port of Tampa, Port Manatee, Port of Key West, Port of Miami, Port Everglades, Port of Palm Beach, Port of Fort Pierce, Port Canaveral, Port of Jacksonville, and Port of Fernandina.Florida Seaports*
Floridas 14 ports:
- 550,000: jobs, direct and indirect
- $66 billion: economic impact
- $54,400: The average annual wage of a seaport-related job.
- Fourth nationally in exporting
- $33.8 billion: 2010 imports
- $35.9 billion: 2010 exports
- 59 percent: U.S. cruise embarkations
- 12.7 million: Cruise passengers in 2010
*Source: Florida Department of Transportation and Florida Ports Council.
Florida Seaports' Priority Seaport Projects:
Port of Miami: $272 million. Deepening of Miami Harbor to a depth of 50 to 52 feet. Super post-Panama gantry cranes.
Port of Jacksonville: $110 million. Spoil disposal site development for future harbor-deepening project. Mile point navigation Fix.
Port Everglades: $162.5 million. Cruise terminal expansion/improvements. Southport turning notch expansion, including habitat enhancements and mitigation.
Port of Tampa: $86 million. Petroleum facilities improvements. Port Redwing development.
Port Canaveral: $110 million. Canaveral North Cargo piers 5 and 8. Cruise terminal 6, new megacruise ship terminal.
Port Manatee: $50 million. South port intermodal complex. Intermodal cold storage facilities.
Port of Palm Beach: $34 million. Slip 3 reconstruction.
Port of Fernandina: $20.2 million. Off-port warehousing and container drop. New berth 3.
Port Panama City: $8.5 million. Warehouse at off-port intermodal distribution center. Phase II container yard expansion.
The first installment of this series: "Port Canaveral Bulking Cargo and Cruise Passengers" can be found here.
(This is the second in a weekly series with port directors in Florida.)
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859 or (772) 215-9889.