A 1954 photo from the Burgert Brothers collection is an iconic image of Tampa's port: burly longshoremen unloading fat bunches of bananas onto conveyor belts feeding semitrailers.
But bananas stopped arriving two decades ago. Shipments of fresh fruit and other perishable foods slowed to a trickle in recent years. Now, the last major fruit importer is taking its business elsewhere.
The problem is a cavernous refrigerated warehouse with a leaky roof and cracked floors. Its owner, the Tampa Port Authority, says repairs to extend the life of the 35-year-old warehouse and two adjacent buildings by three years would cost $3.8 million.
Revenue from shipments of cantaloupes and melons by importer Fresh Quest Produce from November through May wouldn't nearly cover repair costs, says port director Richard Wainio.
He's asking the public agency's governing board for permission to tear down the buildings. Besides outliving their usefulness, Wainio said, the structures sit on land needed for a major expansion of the port's container cargo terminal.
Besides, perishables make up a tiny fraction of the nearly 43 million tons of cargo, mostly phosphate and petroleum products, that move through the port every year. Wainio called the decision to reject Fresh Quest's proposal to use the facility again next year a no-brainer.
Fresh Quest offered a contract to ship through Tampa for two or three years, said shipping manager Carol Sydnor. But officials understood the port authority couldn't make the numbers work, she said, and the company is talking with nearby Port Manatee.
But a former employee of Ports America, which operates the port authority's shipping terminals, takes issue with the decision. Rolf Garvens insists the public agency is overly anxious to build the container terminal expansions and could squeeze a few more years out of the warehouses.
Tampa's decline in refrigerated cargo, called "reefer," began in 1989, when Del Monte moved its Central America import operations from Tampa to Port Manatee. The fruit giant ships an average of 500 tons of bananas daily through Manatee.
Still, the '90s brought Tampa a wide variety of perishables — such as imported New Zealand apples and exports of frozen chicken to the Soviet Union and grapefruit to Japan — moving across its port docks.
From a peak of 322,000 tons in 1996-97, reefer dwindled to just over 35,000 tons of melons and cantaloupes in the year ending last Sept. 30. Much is shipped on pallets inside ships. But companies increasingly use refrigerated containers, a trend Tampa hopes to capitalize on.
"We don't do business for today," says Wainio. "We're looking down the road. We're going to have a refrigerated business. It's going to be containerized."
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.