Building a new cruise ship port on the Pinellas side of the Sunshine Skyway bridge could boost the Tampa Bay economy — or bust it.
The mega cruise ships of the future won't fit under the Skyway. That endangers an industry that pumps $380 million a year into the local economy.
But trying to save the cruise industry could endanger Tampa Bay itself. The bay has never been cleaner — or more lucrative. It supports one out of every five jobs in the region and a booming tourism industry.
Two government reports highlight the opportunity and the risk of building a new cruise port. It's an issue that's stirring emotions across the bay area.
But Tampa Port Authority CEO Paul Anderson said everyone needs to take a breath.
No decision is imminent, he said. The port's top leader asked everyone to keep an open mind: Time and technology may present solutions that haven't yet been considered.
"There are numerous other options," Anderson said. "We don't have anything in our minds as to what those options are."
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In July, a Florida Department of Transportation study said Tampa Bay's cruise ship sector — which supports up to 2,000 jobs locally — could disappear in the next 10 to 15 years.
The options for saving that $380 million-a-year economic engine are daunting:
One of the more realistic but still challenging options would be to build a $700 million cruise port on an artificial island off the Pinellas coast, west of the bridge.
But that option would require tens of millions of federal dollars to dredge a new channel in the bay — and dredging is a job for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The corps of engineers maintains the nation's navigational waterways, including the 70 miles of channels in Tampa Bay.
The Tampa Port Authority asked the corps to explore whether there would be "federal interest" in improving Tampa Bay's cruise ship operations.
The corps issued a report in February that said there could be a "national economic development" benefit to streamlining shipping traffic through the bay. That's because when cruise ships enter the bay's channels, no other ships are allowed in.
For safety reasons, the Coast Guard decided that the channels are too narrow to allow cargo ships to pass, overtake or meet cruise ships. Depending on the weather, ships could spend four to 12 hours at sea waiting for cruise ships to enter or exit the bay.
The corps estimated how much a cruise port west of the Skyway would have saved in the past decade if it kept cruise ships out of the bay: $90.6 million. Going forward, the report said a cruise port could save $10.1 million annually in fuel and other costs.
"That's a potential benefit for commercial ships not having to wait for cruise ships to go through the harbor," said Milan Mora, a corps project manager.
The next step would be for the corps and the Tampa Port Authority to split the cost of a $3 million feasibility study to examine the project more closely. But neither agency could say when that might happen.
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The corps of engineers report offered a potential site for a Pinellas cruise port: just north of the center of the Skyway, on the seaward side of the bridge.
That location is right on top of the last part of the 400-square-mile Tampa Bay estuary that is untouched — and undeveloped — by human beings. It's called Lower Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay Sierra Club chair Kent Bailey said dredging a channel and building an artificial island on top of the marine ecosystem there, right next to the island beaches of Fort De Soto Park, would hurt the bay and the economic activity that depends on the bay.
"Traditional dredging … creates an environmental dead zone," he said. "Creating a dead zone in one of the most sensitive and valuable parts of the bay is very shortsighted."
In July, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council released a report that, for the first time, measured the economic impact of the bay itself.
Planning director Avera Wynne said the study wasn't meant to address the cruise ship issue. But its conclusion — that the clean, or "healthy," waters of the bay annually produce $22 billion of GDP for a six-county region — is now part of the conversation.
"I would say it's there for you to make the interpretation," Wynne said. "A significant consideration for developing and siting a cruise terminal is the impact on sea grasses and other ecosystems of the estuary."
"Healthy bay" means that efforts to reduce pollution have succeeded, and that the acres of valuable sea grass beds that allow other aquatic life to flourish are rebounding in the bay.
The planning council estimated that the six-county region around the bay has an annual GDP of $170 billion and supports more than 2 million jobs. It said $22 billion, or 13 percent of total GDP, is economic activity dependent on a healthy bay. So is one of every five jobs.
The water quality of the bay hasn't been this good since the 1950s. If it continues to get better, Bailey said, then that $22 billion figure will become a baseline.
"As the health of the bay continues to improve," he said, "the dollar value of the healthy bay will continue to increase."
"Maintaining the quality of the bay is akin to good economic development and maintaining jobs," Wynne said. "It's easier to maintain jobs than create them, so maintaining a healthy bay helps us maintain jobs."
Natural assets like clean water, a thriving marine ecosystem and pristine beaches have helped Pinellas County tourism enjoy three consecutive years of record growth. The number of overnight visitors hit an all-time high of 5.6 million in 2013.
The environmental factor is why some doubt that a Pinellas cruise ship port will ever be built. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said future feasibility studies will have to weigh the enormous cost of the project and the future economic benefits versus the risk to the environmental assets and the economic value that already exists in that part of the bay.
"You have beautiful Fort De Soto Park, the mangroves, the salt marshes, the habitats — those are huge economic engines for the Tampa Bay area," she said. "Those discussions haven't even been broached yet.
"I think when everyone arrives at those discussions and weighs the costs and benefits — and I'm just speculating here — but they'll find that super cruise ships and a new terminal would not be appropriate in that area."
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The agency with the most to lose in this debate is the Tampa Port Authority.
Cruise ship passengers generated 22 percent of its revenue in the last fiscal year — $9.5 million out of $44.1 million in total revenue.
The FDOT report also laid out what might happen if the bay area takes no action. If enough smaller cruise ships avoid the scrap heap in the next decade or two, Tampa could become a niche cruise market.
Or the bay area could decide that saving the industry isn't worth the enormous cost or risk, and do nothing.
But Anderson, the port's CEO, said his agency in no rush to make a decision.
He also said he was disappointed that the FDOT report offered a limited number of expensive options that have stirred up a lot of emotions in the bay area.
"There are other options that (the FDOT) didn't look at," he said, "and I wish they did."
Anderson said options that the state did not consider include ideas like floating cruise ship docks. Such a project has been pitched in Grand Cayman as a way of avoiding having to dredge 22.1 million cubic feet of sea floor to build a new cruise port.
"That's where all the environmental impact comes from, pouring tens of millions of cubic yards of dirt to dredge a new island," Anderson said. "There's technology now where you could have floating terminals anchored just like a buoy, and they could be moved if a serious storm threatened."
Anderson said he, too, is concerned about the environmental impact of a Pinellas cruise port on the bay.
"I love to surf, love the ocean, love to dive," he said. "I would never, just from the environmental side of me, say let's make a decision right away today about building that terminal in the bay. Let's look at all the other options."
The port CEO reiterated a point made by FDOT officials: The July report was just a pre-feasibility study. No state or federal feasibility studies have been done yet, and those could take years just to fund and conduct. A final decision would be even further away.
But if Tampa Bay does decide to try to save its cruise industry, that would require cooperation, approval and funding from state and federal officials and agencies.
"We can't do it without them," Anderson said. "It's much bigger than Port Tampa Bay."
Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.