TALLAHASSEE — Every Florida port wants a piece of the global shipping business: Port Miami. Port of Tampa. Port Citrus.
Citrus County leaders hope it could happen — right on their 15-mile stretch of the old Cross Florida Barge Canal near Inglis.
Attached to several Senate and House bills this session are proposals to add "Port Citrus" to the list of 14 public seaports eligible for state money. The first funding request if Citrus gets its wish? Study whether building a "Port Citrus" makes sense.
Don't think of it as a Port of Tampa, and it just might, say county and state leaders behind the proposal.
"We want a chance to step up to the plate and take a swing," said Rep. Jimmie T. Smith, R-Lecanto.
Tampa lawyer Fred Busack, the ports expert who first piqued county commissioners' interest at a presentation in February, said Citrus has reasons to believe:
• The nearby CSX rail line that already serves Progress Energy's power plants.
• A new concept in shipping that could elevate shallow ports after the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2014.
The latter concept is based on a line of container ships called the Trans Sea Lifters, which do not enter ports but rather make brief stops outside shallow ports and load or unload barges that can enter shallow water.
The old Cross Florida Barge Canal, which is about 15 feet deep, has the potential to take those barges, making it part of a "FedEx style distribution system," he said.
"You have assets other folks would kill for," Busack told commissioners.
In the 1980s, officials envisioned the canal as a cargo port for barges — the first time a "Port Citrus" was mentioned — and later as a marina and industrial park to serve the area's commercial and recreational fishing industry. In 1984, the county established its own port authority, the county commission.
Those plans were dropped when the county didn't want to spend public money on the project, and since then the canal has been primarily used by recreational boaters. Nearby development proposals over the years have generated controversy, particularly over environmental impacts, particularly to the manatees passing through the canal.
But the current board of commissioners, desperate to diversify the local economy, is game.
"This is the first thing that I have seen in many, many years in Citrus County that offers the opportunity to have jobs that pay good living wages," Commissioner Rebecca Bays said at the February meeting.
Commissioners agreed to pay up to $50,000 for lobbying by Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson Bell & Dunbar, the firm that employs Busack.
By then, it was too late to work a new bill, but Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, agreed to tack the proposal to designate Port Citrus on to transportation-related legislation they are sponsoring.
"It may open a door," Young said. "Why not look at it?"
Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, helped with the effort and thinks the designation would at least give Citrus a chance. But he's not getting too excited.
"I don't see anything wrong with developing an attitude and a strategy to use the barge canal," he said. "My personal opinion is it looks like a tremendously long-term program."