TAMPA — There's a great future in pineapples, or so the Tampa Port Authority hopes.
The port hosted the International Pineapple Organization's second annual Global Pineapple Conference this past week.
Industry players — growers, importers, producers and shippers — gathered in Tampa to hobnob at the Columbia Restaurant and listen to serious discussions about, of course, pineapples.
They also got a boat tour of Port Tampa Bay.
The port bills itself as the closest full-service U.S. port to the Panama Canal and Central and South America.
That's where most of the pineapples consumed in the United States come from.
See where this is going?
• • •
It's all part of Port Tampa Bay's plan to try to expand and diversify the cargo that flows through its docks.
The port has long been known as a bulk port, moving phosphates, limestone and petroleum. But now it wants to attract more profitable cargoes like cars, containers and food.
"It's part of our business plan, our strategy," said Raul Alfonso, the chief commercial officer of Port Tampa Bay.
The port is especially keen on cargo from Latin America, which is now producing more and more of what the United States consumes — including pineapples.
Americans just can't get enough pineapples. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there have been 17 straight years of record-setting pineapple imports. In 2012, the last year on record, the United States imported 2 billion pounds of pineapple.
It's hard to believe that a port once known for its iconic banana docks actually has to persuade importers to ship their fruit to Tampa.
In the 1990s, fruit from all over the world ended up on Tampa's docks. But that dried up in the next decade. The last fruit importer left in 2009, and the port tore down its dilapidated refrigerated warehouse.
Now Port Tampa Bay is trying to get back into the business.
• • •
It's not easy to ship fruit.
The commodity is moved in refrigerated containers to preserve the perishables. But it's not enough to merely reach the United States. Fruit must then be moved from the docks to the rest of the country.
The pineapples shipped to the Midwest enter the United States through ports such as Philadelphia. But it could take 10 days or more to sail the pineapples up the eastern seaboard.
Port Tampa Bay thinks it has a better way.
It takes only 2½ to 3 days to sail from Central America to Port Tampa Bay, Alfonso said. But proximity to the Gulf of Mexico isn't Tampa's only advantage. So is rail.
At many ports, cargo has to be unloaded from ships and then transported to a depot and then loaded onto trains. But the Tampa Gateway Rail is a 2-mile loop that lets trains pull right up to the docks. Cargo can be unloaded from ships directly onto trains and shipped out much quicker.
From there, it's a 56-hour ride to Chicago.
The trip by water and by rail from Tampa to the Midwest market would be about five days total — half the time it would take for a cargo ship just to reach Philadelphia or another Northern port.
"With the rail service going into the Midwest," Alfonso said, "that's the part that gives it more bang for the buck for growers, importers and distributors."
The faster the fruit can be shipped, the less of it will spoil.
"That's the key," Alfonso said. "If we're able to reduce shelf time on transit, that means money."
The port is also building a refrigerated facility to service CSX's high-speed "Green Express" food cargo train. The $18 million facility is in the design phase and should be completed by 2015. The port is splitting the cost with private interests.
That was the pitch Alfonso was to deliver in a private meeting during the conference with those who grow, import and ship pineapples from Latin America.
• • •
Participants in the conference discussed everything from global pineapple production to the U.S. pineapple market to alternate pineapple trade routes.
But those discussions were not public. A port spokesman said the International Pineapple Organization would not permit a Tampa Bay Times reporter to attend.
The port's pitch is no secret, however. Port Tampa Bay's ambitions to attract cargo from all over Latin America are well known.
Now imagine that pitch being repeated over and over, for Costa Rican pineapple to Brazilian airplanes to Mexican-made cars.
Tampa wants all of it.
"We want them to see our plan," Alfonso said, "and this is what we're trying to do for the produce industry, for the automobile industry.
"We are trying to be their port."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, [email protected] or @jthalji on Twitter.