Expanding Port Manatee has growing appeal

Published on: January 5, 2012

Photo courtesy Port of Manatee Ocean going freighters of the “Panamax” class from around the world, such as the Ozgur Aksoy now are loading and unloading cargo regularly at Port Manatee. Melody Jameson Photo

Photo courtesy Port of Manatee Ocean going freighters of the “Panamax” class from around the world, such as the Ozgur Aksoy now are loading and unloading cargo regularly at Port Manatee. Melody Jameson Photo


By land and by sea, they’re coming to Port Manatee.

It might sound like the opening line of a ditty composed over the bar in a Key West watering hole, but it actually applies to the 40-year-old deepwater port that not only is weathering recessionary pressures but growing and positioning to meet future demands.

The evidence is in the 11 outsized freighters that have slipped into new Berth 12, dedicated less than three months ago and designed to accommodate “Panamax” vessels drawing as much as 41 feet.

It’s verified by the incoming tenants and the internal port expansions and investment in new equipment.

And, the proof is in the touring trams crowded with curious visitors who’ll never pilot a freighter into a berth or unload a ship’s cargo or stack pallets in a seaside warehouse but still want to know the port up close and personal.    

Port Manatee, located just south of the Hillsborough-Manatee County line, was created by legislative act in 1967 on acreage between U.S. 41 and the mouth of Tampa Bay. The first ship arrived in August, 1970, several months before the facility was dedicated in October, that year. Roadway which once led to the East Tampa Bay shoreline docks of the Beeline Ferry, carrying passengers to Pinellas County long before the contemporary bridges were built, runs along the port’s north edge.

Today, less than a half century later, the 1100-acre port is home to dozens of permanent tenants using its facilities. It supports, either directly or indirectly, an estimated 24,000 jobs and presents an economic impact for the region exceeding $2.3 billion each year, according to Anne O’Roake, port spokesperson. And, it is not supported by property taxes.

Commodities being shipped out of the port include finished phosphate products, citrus juices, construction and road-building equipment as well as used cars.

The primary imports are tropical fruits and vegetables, natural gas, refined petroleum products, aluminum and other non-ferrous metals, steel, cement, finished fertilizer products and forestry products.

In addition to tenants shipping out to other ports and receiving goods coming in such as Florida Rock Industries and American Cement Company, Fresh Del Monte Products and C&D Fruit and Vegetable, the port hosts U.S. Customs and Border Protection personnel, a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation installation and an Anchor House mission that provides a range of services to freighter captains, officers and sailors from other nations.

Recently joining the list of entities doing business through the port is Port Dolphin Energy, LLC. The energy company and port management signed a long term agreement in 2010 dealing with the firm’s plans to initiate a natural gas facility about 28 miles off the Manatee County coast in 2013. Another recent newcomer to the port is Martin Marietta Materials which put in a 4900-foot conveyor system between Berth 5 and its 20-acre storage site.

 In terms of internal infrastructure, the port’s own rail system has nine miles of track and 20 switches. Its 1835-horsepower switch engine can pull cargo to a connection with the CSX mainline for further transport across the state or across the nation. There now are two Gottwald mobile harbor cranes that can handle containers, bulk, heavy-lift and general cargoes at its nine ship berths, the latest representing a $1 million investment. There’s also more than one million square feet of warehouse and office space on the port grounds, including a little over 200,000 square feet of refrigerated storage and 30,000 square feet of freezer storage. Like all major ports, since the 9/11 attacks, Manatee has developed a sophisticated security system involving several types and layers of protection in effect around the clock.

Perhaps even more important are the several built-in port advantages its management sees. Prime is its situation at the entrance to Tampa Bay, the closest deepwater port to the Panama Canal now undergoing a $5.25 billion expansion targeted for completion in 2014, an even century after its opening. And the port is poised to handle those Panamax vessels coming through the renovated canal. Then, there’s the easy access by truck from the port to three interstate highways and three U.S. roadways without encountering urban traffic. Plus, more than 4,000 acres of undeveloped land surround the port, providing ample room for growth.

The next step in the port’s $200 million progress plan is a 52-acre container terminal adjacent to Berth 12, O’Roake said. Containerized shipping has revolutionized transport of goods by sea, she noted, adding efficiencies and reducing costs.

Much of this is showcased and explained to the hundreds of visitors each month who reserve spots on the tour tram piloted by knowledgeable, affable guides with an abundance of port anecdotes. Port tours are conducted most Mondays and Wednesdays during fall, winter and spring months. Reservations can be made by telephone at 941-722-6621.

Copyright 2012 Melody Jameson