Friday, May 25, 2018
Business

Hillsborough County commissioner explores idea of trading cruise business for Tampa Bay Rays

St. Petersburg fears losing the Rays because of the inadequacies of Tropicana Field. Tampa fears losing the cruise ship business because the latest megaships won't fit under the Sunshine Skyway bridge.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist proposes to solve both problems in what amounts to a major league trade: St. Petersburg lets the Rays go to Hillsborough in return for the cruise ship business.

"That's how we should be talking," Crist said in an interview Thursday. "What do we have that you can grow and improve and what do you have that we could grow and improve, instead of hoarding."

Within the next five years or so, most of the midsize cruise ships that currently service the Tampa port will be switched to the new megaships. They are too tall to fit through the 182.5 feet available under the Skyway bridge to get to the current terminal near Channelside in Tampa.

Officials have to come up with some way to accommodate the larger ships or risk losing the cruise business altogether. Cruises brought in about $9.9 million in revenue last year — about a quarter of the port's operating revenue — and are projected to earn about $11 million this year.

It looks as if the best option to accommodate larger ships is to build a separate terminal for cruise ships somewhere west of the Skyway, said Port of Tampa director Richard Wainio.

One idea is to build a new multidock pier near the bridge, in an area that is still technically within Hillsborough County limits. (The county line between Pinellas and Hillsborough runs under the Skyway bridge.)

To build at that site, the Port Authority would have to dredge some of the area around the bridge and build a small island to support the cruise terminal. Dredging and creating man-made islands is not unusual, though it requires plenty of time to obtain permits and conduct environmental studies.

Obviously, Wainio said, this project would take priority because it would be preserving Tampa's stake in the cruise business.

"We're exploring how that can be accomplished, and then it's up to others how it would be done once we present [the idea] to them," Wainio said.

Because the proposed location would only be accessible by car through Pinellas County, that puts Pinellas — not Hillsborough — in position to reap the most benefits from any increase in tourism and growth in the cruise business, the idea being that cruise passengers would be more likely to stay a night or two at a hotel in Pinellas County, rather than drive from Hillsborough to the new cruise dock.

Could that financial benefit be used as a bargaining chip in discussions about the Rays' future home?

Possibly.

"That's an interesting suggestion," said St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster.

St. Petersburg has been trying for years to get a bigger piece of the area's cruise business, said Foster, who did not want to comment further about the idea of the Rays moving outside of St. Petersburg.

Crist views this as the perfect opportunity for the two counties to collaborate on port business, something he has been trying to accomplish since he joined the commission.

A larger, easily accessible cruise terminal would attract more cruise lines to Tampa Bay. More passengers means more revenue for the Port Authority and more visitors to area beaches, hotels and restaurants.

"The bottom line is the bigger ships are where the industry is moving toward," Crist said.

Another idea is to build a new cruise ship terminal at Egmont Key, which sits a few miles from Fort De Soto Park, and shuttle the passengers back and forth to the mainland.

But Wainio is quick to point out that no decisions have been made as to exactly where or when a new terminal would be built.

"It's all conceptual," Wainio said. "We have a general location, and we have a conceptual engineering design."

The Port Authority, however, will have to figure it out within the next five years or risk losing its cruise business altogether, he said.

"If you wait much beyond that, you might find yourself without a market to pursue, or a limited market to pursue," he said.

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