With the pending expansion of the Panama Canal on the horizon, and an eye on a free Cuba, Port Manatee is bristling with opportunities as executives have created a special economic development zone on neighboring land that is hoped to double and even triple capacity in the coming decades.
Similar to enterprise zones that offer incentives to businesses, the port has crafted a 5,000-acre encouragement zone that has so far drawn interest from at least seven companies that would serve as port-related distribution centers.
Were ideally situated to the highway, with direct access to the interstate, said Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras.We have extensive and inexpensive land that is already zoned for distribution centers, so essentially we can recreate what I think Savannah has done in bringing distribution centers to drive additional volume.
Besides highways that offer smooth travel across the nation, the port is linked with the CSX rail lines.
And while all the attention has gone toward digging the Port of Miami to a depth of 50 feet in preparation for the expected increase in trade through the expansion of the Panama Canal, millions of dollars have also been spent in the past year to bring Port Manatee to 41 feet.
Buqueras added that the port, which is promoting its close links to rail that provides quick access to the nations heartland, plans to jump quickly when Cuba is opened for trade with the United States.
You have to be prepared when trade resumes that the buyers and sellers are going to need to do business, he said.
Located at the entrance to Tampa Bay, between the Tampa Bay Estuarine Ecosystem and Terra Ceia State Park, east of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Imports and exports: Fresh produce, forestry products, petroleum products, citrus juice products, fertilizer, steel, aluminum, automobiles, cement and aggregate.
Port Manatee is Fresh Del Monte Produces second largest U.S. port facility.
Regional economic impact: $2.3 billion.
Cargo: 8.03 million tons a year (by comparison, Port of Tampa 37.15 tons).
Projected cargo for fiscal year 2014/15: 20.83 million tons.
Port Manatee is a dependent special district created by the Florida Legislature in 1967. The port is governed by the Manatee County Port Authority -- a seven-member oversight board which sets policy and oversees major expenditures for the port.
Seven questions with Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras
SSN: Where does Port Manatee view itself in the footprint of Gov. Scotts dream to attract more growth from the Panama Canal expansion?
Buqueras: The Panama Canal, front and center, resets the playing field for trade opportunities for Florida in particular. Not all ports will benefit directly. The ships coming through the canal draft up to 50 feet.At this point, not one port is up to 50 feet. So were all at this point in the proverbial boat together.
Having said that, were at 41-, 42-feet, which is where Port Everglades is with 1 million containers a year coming through.
So you dont need to be at 50 feet to handle in excess of 800,000 to 900,000 containers a year.
The trade pattern is more than transcanal, for Florida; there has been trade that is north-south.
In the future, when we have a resumption of trade with Cuba that will be another boost for Port Manatee.
Although were not counting on it financially, at some point were going to need to be ready for that in addition to the canal.
SSN: What is the desired growth in the next five to 20 years for the port?
Buqueras: I see the port, in the next five years, handling 300,000 containers, and in the next 20 certainly handling 800,000 or close to 1 million containers.
That would be based on the development of the north port project.
Were ideally situated to the highway, with direct access to the interstate. We have extensive and inexpensive land that is already zoned for distribution centers, so essentially we can recreate what I think Savannah has done in bringing distribution centers to drive additional volume.
Warehousing, infrastructure is where were going to make a living. We dont have to reinvent the wheel.
Also, Port Manatee could become the pantry for Cuba with warehousing here.
SSN: What will it take to reach this point?
Buqueras: We have looked at what theyre looking for in logistics, given that the sourcing of the commodities for Cuba will come from distribution centers in the Tampa Bay area. Also, the canal will bring in Latin America and the Far East. Plus we have a foreign trade zone here and have all the ingredients for unique opportunities whenyou consider once you get on (Interstate) 75 there are no traffic lights from here to California, Chicago or Detroit.
Thats something that European and Far Eastern shipping lines are not used to. And I cannot forget the rail. With CSX on port, we can deliver commodities to and from the Midwest much more efficiently and with a much smaller carbon footprint for the long-haul. We could become Midwest gateway. We could become their port.
Were not behind any initiative to make Cuba a trading partner, but we are monitoring the situation. You have to be prepared when trade resumes that the buyers and sellers are going to need to do business.
SSN: What ports and entities are offering the most competition to attract this trade?
Buqueras: Our competition is the ability to grow the port fast enough, growing our footprint.
The existing port direction now is, were going after filling the capacity with new business.
We do not compete with (Port of) Tampa, we see it as synergistic opportunities like between Miami and Port Everglades.
You serve the same hinterland and consumer market and the most important thing the ports need to do here is to create jobs. If what were doing is putting money in our pockets, its not helping anybody.
You have got to keep the port profitable, but as important as making money is to create economic benefit for the local community and region.
SSN: What is Florida doing to counter this competition?
Buqueras: Id rather they come to Tampa or Port Manatee than they go to Houston.
We offer the customer choices. Maybe they like Tampa better, or ours is better, but that overall our job is to bring business into Florida first.
SSN: Who are the biggest champions of the port?
Buqueras: The Port Authority first and our congressional delegation, theyre helping us with funding, state and federal. They are also ambassadors in terms of trade because its extremely important when trying to attract foreign companies that you show those champions at a high-level government backing.
When they see the Port Authority is behind it, that the state and federal congressional delegations are behind it, it means a lot in terms of attracting trade.
The Port Authority is the Manatee County Commission, so the county is behind us.
We use that when they help us sell the port and theyre eager to sell the port to help us create jobs.
We have the encouragement zone -- a highly attractive distribution center that a lot wish they had.
Many ports are limited by land. If you have a Home Depot, Office Depot, they all gravitate to be around the port. Were able to show savings with the continuous encouragement zone ready and prepared to help in bringing business to the port itself.
SSN: What and who are some of the biggest hurdles facing the port's expansion?
Buqueras: I think most port directors' view is that were not into airplanes, were into things that float. Once you identify the things you want, visit them, identify the problems they might be having and make the port the solution to their problem. It could be a logistics problem, it could be a customs problem, USDA problem.
What global supply chain problem are you having and what can Port Manatee do to solve the problem from door to door, not just as an intermediary? What problem is the seller having in Japan? What problem are you having, or are your importers having? And what we can help solve for you?
We expand the port's footprint to the entire logistics. Thats attractive when youre solving someones problem -- they tend to feel the desire to then gravitate to the solution -- and, therefore, they know with Port Manatee theyre going to be taken care off.
Behind all those solutions are jobs.
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.
The third: "Gateway to the Caribbean Seeks Inland Expansion" can be found here.
The fourth: "Port of Miami is Digging for Growth" can be found here.
The fifth: "Key West: Port of Cruises" can be found here.
The sixth: "Port of Fernandina Looking Inland" can be found here.
The seventh: "Port of Pensacola Aims to Increase Cargo Handling" can be found here.
The eighth: Port of Fort Pierce Aims to Expand Cargo Capacity can be found here.
(This is the ninth in a series with port directors in Florida.)
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (772) 215-9889.