ST. PETERSBURG — Walt Miller has a vision for the tiny port he manages: Woods Hole, Florida edition.
Establishing something like the famed oceanographic institute in Massachusetts would be an ideal way to rekindle the sliver of St. Petersburg's port wedged on a few acres to the south of Albert Whitted Airport.
Standing on a recent afternoon in a forlorn cruise terminal building amid unplugged metal detectors and orange life-saving rings, Miller said one day the city's port could be a marine-research hub with a significant educational aspect. Think eager schoolchildren rubbing shoulders with marine biologists.
"It would be so nice to have activity here," Miller said. "I'm optimistic."
Optimism has a dismal history at the port. Past dreams of gambling boats, cruise ships, even a fresh seafood market, have all curdled. Ship visits fell to just 23 for the just-ended fiscal year, down from 32 in 2013, although the number of total number days in port more than doubled.
Now, a $5 million overhaul of the sea wall, wharf and utilities is almost complete. Soon, government and private research vessels will be able to use all of their on-board electronics, thanks to wharf-side power pedestals.
The hope is that the upgrades will attract more ship traffic, which would raise more money for the port. The city currently kicks in about $250,000 a year to keep the port running.
"That's been an ongoing issue with the port," said Dave Metz, interim city development administrator.
Yet one prospect courted by the city appears to be taking a pass.
In March, Mayor Rick Kriseman wrote the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to request the federal agency relocate its ship Nancy Foster from Charleston, S.C., to St. Petersburg.
On Wednesday, NOAA spokesman David L. Hall told the Times in an email, "At this time … there are no mission mandates or funding available to support changing the ship's current home port."
Another ship, a replica of the War of 1812 privateer Lynx, is a better bet for using St. Petersburg as its home port. Currently operating along the Atlantic coast and Great Lakes, the Lynx has been a frequent winter visitor to the city.
"We're considering it," said Donald Peacock, board chairman for the Lynx Educational Foundation. "We're in search of facilities that would have an educational access and a place with easy access, parking — a place where the ship can be viewed."
Adding a hands-on shipboard experience to the port would be a capstone for the Port Discovery concept, which would combine exhibits and activities for school-age children with an expansion of marine science research.
Earlier this year, University of South Florida College of Marine Science dean Jacqueline Dixon said the Port Discovery proposal, aided by the university and the Stanford Research Institute, which has a facility at the port, could draw as many as 800 jobs and an estimated $30 million to the city.
"It would really open the port up to the public," Miller said.
Meanwhile, waterfront master plan discussions on the port have focused on a soon-to-be shuttered city wastewater plant sitting on several acres between the port and airport. That space presents a joint-use opportunity: perhaps more parking or shared building space, Metz said.
"They shouldn't be looked at independently of one another. Instead, we should look at ways to make an investment in one that would benefit the other," Metz said.
City Council member Jim Kennedy agrees that any decisions on the port should wait until the waterfront plan is completed next year, but that whatever happens needs to be a game-changer, not a stop-gap measure.
The 10-year lease limits set by the city charter are the biggest stumbling block for developing the port, he said. A 2011 effort to allow 25-year leases failed.
To persuade residents to lengthen a lease by referendum might take a project with more economic development potential than Port Discovery, he said. He suggested yacht repair or a docking station for the high-speed ferry being discussed from Tampa.
"I see the port adapting to transportation, because I don't see (a ferry) going in front of the Vinoy," he said. "I see mega-yacht repairs. Dirty business, but where else do you have that between Key West and New Orleans? There are opportunities along those lines but any of that takes infrastructure."
Contact Charlie Frago at [email protected] or (727) 893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.