The ports harbor similar ambitions, chase the same cargoes, pine for the same markets. Both open into Tampa Bay, separated by just a few miles.
Yet Port Manatee and Port Tampa Bay could not be further apart.
Part of it is natural rivalry. Lately, it has been more personal.
Port Manatee officials charged that Port Tampa Bay tried to take over their port. Tampa officials denied that.
They talked. But Manatee County Port Authority Chairwoman Carol Whitmore did not like what she heard — especially what she called the "good ol' boy" mentality of former Tampa Port Authority Chairman William "Hoe" Brown.
"This is a man's world in the port," Whitmore said. "I wasn't going to put up with it."
She demanded to speak to a woman: Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who serves on Tampa's board. They met at a Denny's last month. Both said it was a good meeting.
Murman thought they were ready to move on.
"We have, I think, buried the hatchet," she said.
Then came the pineapple affair.
• • •
The Tampa Port Authority was formed in 1945. The Manatee County Port Authority was created in 1967. They've been jostling ever since.
Port Tampa Bay bills itself as the closest "full-service" port to the Panama Canal. Port Manatee says it is "the closest U.S. deepwater" port to the Panama Canal.
Port Manatee said it is 23 miles closer to the Panama Canal than the Port Tampa Bay berths at Hooker's Point.
"To put in your marketing materials that you're the closest port to the Panama Canal is wrong," Whitmore said. "Don't play those games."
The "full-service" qualifier refers to Tampa's ship-repair capabilities, cruise ship terminals and ability to handle different cargoes. Manatee doesn't have dry docks or cruise ships.
"It's been going on for a while now," Doug Wheeler said of the rivalry. He's the CEO of the Florida Ports Council, the association that represents and lobbies for the state's ports.
That the two ports are so alike aggravates the conflict.
Both rely heavily on bulk cargoes like phosphates and fuel, chase lucrative cargoes of the future like cars and containers, want to be the first stop for Latin American imports and for cargo bound for the Orlando region.
There are important differences: Tampa is the state's largest cargo port by tonnage. It moved 34.9 million tons in fiscal year 2013. Manatee handled 7.2 million tons.
Manatee is supported entirely by user fees. The Tampa Port Authority also gets ad valorem taxes.
Florida's ports don't report to one state authority. Instead, Tampa and Manatee are just two of 15 independent ports.
• • •
Last spring, leaders from both ports met to talk about greater cooperation. It started out well.
"They mentioned regionalism," Whitmore said, "and we said, 'Yeah, regionalism is good.' "
But then Tampa officials, according to Whitmore, mentioned that state officials had talked to them about consolidating port operations. No one had talked to Manatee about that.
"We got in the car and said, 'Wait a minute,' " Whitmore said.
To Manatee, talk of consolidation was code for a hostile takeover. In November, the Manatee County Commission voted to oppose any merger. Port officials also rallied the Manatee legislative delegation to come to their defense.
Manatee officials heard there was a bill floating around the Legislature. But Richard Biter, the Florida Department of Transportation's assistant secretary for intermodal systems, said the language called for studying a statewide port authority.
"I think in Manatee's defense, they were caught off guard," Wheeler said. "They weren't approached about this."
Officials in Tampa and Tallahassee insist no forced merger was ever in the works.
"I think some ports read much more into that than what it really was," Biter said. "Our focus is on regional cooperation, not consolidation."
Whitmore still didn't get along with Brown. He resigned in July as Tampa's chairman after the Tampa Bay Times reported that he rented squalid units to the poor and disadvantaged.
Then in January, the Port of Tampa rebranded itself as Port Tampa Bay to better market itself using the entire bay area.
But if Tampa officials favor that approach, Whitmore wondered, then why won't they jointly market their port alongside Port Manatee?
"They're trying to sell a region," Whitmore said, "but they forgot the port south of them. That could help to bring business to them and us."
Whitmore, who also sits on the Manatee County Commission, finally met Murman in February.
Both sides said it went well. Until earlier this month.
• • •
Port Manatee imported 70,416 tons of pineapples from Latin America for Fresh Del Monte Produce Inc. last fiscal year.
Port Tampa Bay got out of the fruit business in 2009. Its old facilities had to be torn down. Now Tampa wants back in.
So it sponsored the International Pineapple Organization's Global Pineapple Conference. Industry players met March 19-20 in Tampa.
But when Port Manatee and Port Canaveral registered to attend, both got an email from the pineapple group on March 14:
The conference suddenly instituted a "One Port Policy." Only one port would be allowed to attend: Port Tampa Bay.
No official the Times spoke to had ever heard of such a policy.
"I too am very surprised to learn of this last minute condition placed upon the IPO by Port Tampa Bay," wrote IPO executive director Will Cavan in an email.
Later, on March 17, Cavan wrote another email: "I truly wish that Port Manatee & Port Tampa Bay would put your differences behind yourselves."
Port Manatee decided to go anyway.
"My thinking is if Port Tampa Bay wants me to cancel so bad," a Manatee sales official emailed his colleagues on March 17, "there must be a motive."
But when a Port Manatee official tried to enter a reception at the Columbia Restaurant on March 19, he said a Port Tampa Bay security guard blocked his way.
Ed Miyagishima, senior adviser to Port Tampa Bay's CEO, defended their actions.
"This was not directed at Port Manatee," he said. "We were hosting the conference at Port Tampa Bay, and we wanted to showcase the facilities at Port Tampa Bay."
He said the Manatee official should not have tried to crash Tampa's event. And he postulated this scenario: "If Port Manatee were hosting an event with Del Monte, they would not invite us."
Murman said being competitive also means being aggressive.
"They could have gone after it and excluded us," she said. "There's many things we do participate together on. But we're still our port and we're going to be aggressive in marketing and working on economic development, jobs and keeping our competitive edge.
"That's something we're going to work on just like they're going to work on. One conference does not show any change in attitude toward them. We still want to be partners."
• • •
That's exactly what Whitmore said she wants: the two ports to partner with each other, to market themselves and the bay area to potential cargo customers together.
The Manatee chairwoman's fear is that two divided ports will miss out on opportunities that they could grab together.
"If one big company goes to another port like Savannah (Ga.) because we can't work together," she said, "then shame on us."
But the kind of cooperation Whitmore wants — two ports marketing and selling their services together — seems not just far off, but doesn't even appear to be on Tampa's radar.
The tension is unavoidable. Port Tampa Bay and Port Manatee cannot just grow together. Both must generate business and revenue on their own. Yet both have very similar plans for doing so.
Both ports are angling to be the first U.S. stop for cars made in Mexico bound for the American market. Both signed deals with different auto processing companies. Port Tampa Bay agreed to a deal with Amports in July. Port Manatee signed with Pasha Automotive Services in September.
Both also want to expand their cargo container sectors, which is a more lucrative cargo than the bulk materials both rely on now.
Carlos Buqueras understands the drive to compete. Before becoming Port Manatee's CEO in 2012, he spent 22 years engaged in Florida's biggest port rivalry: PortMiami vs. Port Everglades.
Everglades was nearly empty when he arrived, he said. Yet decades later, despite their close proximity, both ports move millions of cargo containers and cruise ship passengers each year.
"I see the pie as a growing pie, and I think that's the way everyone should look at it," he said. "Not that you rob Peter to pay Paul."
Tampa officials said that they do believe in cooperation, and that the two ports already do so in many areas: navigation, security, emergency management and lobbying for federal dredging money.
Miyagishima said that the pineapple conference was an outlier. He said Port Manatee took part in Tampa's steel conference and safety summit in February and will be welcome at future events.
"There are going to be times when we compete for business," he said, "but we're constantly looking at the bigger picture for the state."
Murman wishes Manatee would move past all this drama.
"I guess I've got to go back and talk to (Whitmore) some more," she said, "and make sure that we're still on the right track."
Whitmore said she's also still committed to collaboration.
But she didn't seem emphatic about it.
"I'm determined to work with the Port of Tampa," Whitmore said, "or whatever they call themselves."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jamal Thalji can be reached at (813) 226-3404, [email protected] or @jthalji on Twitter.