To save its cruise ship business, Tampa might have to move it to Pinellas County. • It's a shift that could make a lot of money for both sides of the bay, according to Richard Wainio, the recently departed director of the Tampa Port Authority. • A Tampa-based cruise operation, he said, can last only another decade, because the cruise industry is moving to new megaships that can't fit under the Sunshine Skyway bridge. Even if they could, they're too big for Port of Tampa facilities to handle. The new ships carry more than 6,000 passengers, more than twice the load of the smaller ships now serving the port.
In an interview with the Tampa Bay Times before he left office last month, Wainio elaborated on an idea he has mulled for years: moving cruise ship operations from downtown Tampa's waterfront to the coast near Pinellas County. Ships can reach this location without having to pass under the Skyway.
To that end, one of his last acts as CEO of the Port of Tampa was to order an economic study to answer these questions: Is the cruise business worth saving? What is it actually worth to the bay area? What would the cost and benefit be of building a mega cruise terminal?
Until the numbers come in, no one will know if Wainio's idea has merit.
And only then, Wainio said, can port leaders try to sell the idea to Pinellas leaders.
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Tampa is a drive-through for cruise ship passengers. Or worse still, a parking lot.
They drive up, park, board and sail off. They generally don't stick around to spend money or visit the sights or drive across the bridges to hit the beaches, Wainio said.
But in Pinellas County, where beaches and resorts abound, those passengers would have nearby reasons to stay and spend money.
For them, cruises could become just one part of their Florida vacations, Wainio said, not their sole reason for visiting.
He said the stickiness factor benefits the busiest cruise ship port around: the Port of Miami, which recently trademarked the phrase "Cruise Capital of the World." There, Wainio said, cruise passengers (4.1 million in 2011) incorporate South Florida into their vacation plans.
"People would stay pre- and post-cruise," Wainio said. "You'd develop a cruise business more like South Florida's. Right now, in Tampa, we're basically a drive-in market, and that means people don't come from far too far away. They drive their cars. They park. They get on the cruise ship and then they go home. They don't spend a lot of time in the area.
"But if you're like South Florida, if you have mega cruise ships and you have the demand required to fill those ships, you'll have people flying in from far off, and those kinds of customers tend to stay in hotels pre- and post-cruise and spend money and generate a lot more economic value."
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But the scope of the megaship business will be daunting for Tampa Bay to match.
The world's largest cruise ship, Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, is 1,187 feet long, 208 feet wide and can hold up to 6,296 guests. It's based in Fort Lauderdale and sails the Caribbean.
It sits 236 feet above the water line. There's just 182.5 feet below the Skyway.
By comparison, Carnival's Legend, which sails from Tampa to the Caribbean and Central America, is 962 feet long, 106 feet wide and holds up to 2,500 passengers.
It fits under the Skyway — but in the years to come, ships like the Legend will become the Motorola Razr to the Allure of the Seas' iPhone 5.
The cruise business is a moneymaker for the Tampa Port Authority, which has four cruise lines running five ships (three seasonally). In 2011, the port handled 875,611 passengers who generated $10 million of revenue in parking and cruise ship fees, or 24 percent of the authority's record $42 million revenue that year.
Now compare that to the Allure of the Seas' home, Port Everglades, the nation's second-busiest departure port last year — but hoping to surpass the nearby Port of Miami for No. 1. The Fort Lauderdale port has 12 cruise lines running 41 ships. In 2011, it generated $56.7 million in cruise ship revenue, a 24 percent jump fueled by just under 4 million passengers.
The Legend calls the Port of Tampa's Terminal 2 home. The 108,000-square-foot facility, built in 1994, lies between struggling Channelside Bay Plaza and the Florida Aquarium.
In 2009 Port Everglades opened Terminal 18, the biggest cruise ship terminal in the world, to handle the world's biggest ships, the Oasis of the Seas and now its sister ship, the Allure. The 240,000-square-foot terminal cost $75 million. Of course, it wasn't built without Royal Caribbean signing a contract committing the two megaships. Wainio said Tampa Bay can't build its own megaship port without the same agreement. But to even get to that point, that's what the bay area would have to compete with.
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The Tampa Port Authority is a Hillsborough County agency, so it would have to build the megaship terminal inside the county, on land it controls. The waters that flow past the Skyway into the Gulf of Mexico belong to Hillsborough. But where would a terminal be built, and how? Engineers could dredge around the bridge to create a man-made island, but that would be costly, time-consuming and environmentally difficult.
But that sliver of Hillsborough would have to be connected to Pinellas. The authority would own and run the cruise terminal, but it would be dependent on Pinellas infrastructure — definitely roads, possibly parking, restaurant and retail, perhaps emergency services as well. Though no price tag has been set, both counties are looking at tens of millions in potential expenditures.
But both could benefit. Cruise passengers could stay longer in Pinellas, book rooms, eat out, golf, buy stuff. The port makes millions charging passengers parking and cruise fees. Pinellas could also make money from the businesses that would sprout up near the megaship terminal. Two year-round megaships could bring in more than 10,000 visitors a week.
What if the economics justifies the investment? What if the Port of Tampa and Pinellas County could both come out ahead?
"Before we can sit down with the people in Pinellas, you have to show them something," Wainio said. "We can talk generally and conceptually about this, and the response is, 'That's an interesting idea.' But if it can be accomplished and it does bring in millions of people and lots of value, that'll be a great thing."
The economic study is definitely needed to help restart the conversation in Pinellas. County Commissioner Karen Seel said the idea hasn't come up since Wainio first pitched it back in May.
"I think it's intriguing and interesting," she said. "We just need to find out more about what the costs will be, the environmental impact, how it would work, where it goes, how we would finance it."
Seel said Commissioner Neil Brickfield once mentioned that Pinellas should run its own terminal, but the concept hasn't come back up in months.
But the biggest obstacle in Pinellas will likely be its own crown jewel: pristine beaches. The environmental implications would be parsed for years — probably in court.
"There's so much more information that's needed before we can talk about this," Seel said. "But we're sensitive in Pinellas County about the environmental impact because of our beautiful beaches. Having said that, I think that the cruise ships have managed not to create oil spills."
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In September, the Tampa Port Authority board approved hiring the economic consulting firm Martin and Associates to do the economic study.
But what happens if Tampa Bay chooses not to compete for the megaships? The Port of Tampa could become a niche cruise port, serving smaller ships. Not everyone wants to spend a week sailing with 5,000 people, after all.
The port could continue to make money. The authority and Pinellas County could decide there's a better way to invest the millions it would take to join the megaship business.
But the area could also risk losing that industry entirely.
"The cruise business is changing," Wainio said. "If we want to be a big player in the long term, it could be a growth area for the future. But 10 years from now, you might not have a cruise business if you can't handle those mega cruise shops."