Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2008

The Panama Canal expansion, expected to be finished by 2014, will be a boon for Southwest Florida, according to canal watchers. Port Manatee, in particular, stands to benefit. It’s the closest U.S. deepwater seaport to the Panama Canal and also one of the only Florida ports surrounded by undeveloped land.

The $5.2 billion Panama Canal ( expansion will add two wider sets of locks and a deeper navigational channel to accommodate larger ships and ease long wait times. It’s also expected to double canal traffic.

For the last 10 years, the port has been positioning itself to take immediate advantage of these new opportunities in trade and business development. “Our objective is to get into the container business,” says Steve Tyndal, senior director of trade development for Port Manatee. “Container business requires large berths, large cranes, large container yards and lots of trucks. It also creates the largest number of jobs and has greatest revenue potential.”

Container ships carry dry or refrigerated cargo in 20- or 40-foot boxes that are unloaded to trucks or rail cars with specialized cranes. Today’s world container trade totals 96 million boxes annually and is expected to increase to 243 million boxes by 2024. “The order of magnitude is staggering,” says Tyndal.

Port Manatee plans to accommodate Panamax ships, the largest size that can now pass through the canal, through a $150 million expansion that is now in its final phase. (Today’s Panamax ship measures a maximum of 965 feet long, 104 feet wide and 39.5 feet below the waterline in fresh water, with a capacity of around 5,000 containers.) In 2007, the Port purchased a mobile harbor Gottwald crane; this year, dredging is underway for a deeper Berth 12, which will be “the largest capacity new berth in Tampa Bay in 30 years,” Tyndal says. The port is adding a 52-acre container yard behind the berth.

“We’re different than most other seaports. Most are located at the urban core of the cities they serve,” says Tyndal. And since more than 3,000 acres of land surrounding the port are privately-owned, they’re available for development. Warehouse and distribution centers, manufacturing, and businesses that support port customers could all expand, while the ease of access to I-75 and 275 offers a competitive alternate trade route.

Manatee County Commissioner and Port Authority Chairman Joe McClash is leading the charge to stimulate growth around the port through the creation of a Port Manatee Encouragement Zone. The zone would waive local impact fees, extend the Foreign Trade Zone, accelerate permits and extend the Port’s Development of Regional Impact (DRI) exemption to surrounding land. A new zoning classification will enable agricultural landowners to upgrade to port-related industrial uses without requesting a zoning change.

“It will allow Port Manatee to become center stage in Florida,” says McClash, who has already heard from entrepreneurs interested in manufacturing, furniture assembly, oil and fuel storage and distribution centers for products for major retailers such as Home Depot.

Development is already occurring. Buckeye Industrial Park, about a quarter mile from the port, sold two parcels in April to Federal Express, which is building a distribution facility, and Clearwater-based Port Manatee Industrial, LLC, which will develop the park for warehouse distribution and light manufacturing. The 138-acre park’s two parcels sold for a combined $22 million. “There was a lot of interest in the land because of its location,” says Caldwell Banker Commercial agent Paul Klick.

Kim Cartlidge

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