Desperate to turn its struggling deepwater port into a viable money-making venture, city officials will seek ideas from the public this week.
The city's longtime dream to turn the Port of St. Petersburg into a cruise ship hub took a major blow last April when engineers said the transformation could cost at least $72-million. Since then, city officials say they have wrestled over what their next step should be.
"It is prime waterfront property. We just need to find the best use for it," said Walt Miller, the city's port and marina director.
The public input session starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the port at 250 Eighth Ave. SE. The city can accommodate 100 participants.
State and federal agencies, such as the Florida Wildlife Research Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, now line the port, along with a major U.S. Coast Guard base and a marine hub for the U.S. Geological Survey.
Mega-yachts owned by two of the world's richest men — Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Russian oil baron Roman Abramovich — have been temporarily moored at the port in recent weeks, where they are being stocked for future voyages.
Continuing to reach out to mega-yachts and marine research groups might be the best bet, city leaders said. Other potential uses being proposed: a small cruise ship port, a traditional marina, an entertainment center with retail and restaurants, or a ferry service dock.
"However, the most important thing is to get the public's input on what they think the port should be," Miller said.
The port, the smallest of Florida's 14, has been somewhat of a burden on the city in recent years.
It earned less than $130,000 in 2007. The city had to cover the rest of its $658,000 total operating costs that year.
"It's potential has never been met," council Chairman Jamie Bennett said.
The port was founded in the 1920s as an industrial terminal. The Coast Guard established a base a few years later, and during World War II a Merchant Marine training center had the port humming.
Cruise activity took off at the port in the 1970s but never flourished.
In 1991, the port lost its last cruise ship when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service ruled Sea Escape Cruises' foreign crews could not use Tampa Bay as a home port, effectively ending the city's tumultuous four-year history with the cruise-to-nowhere company.
A gambling boat venture ended just as badly. After opening to great fanfare in October 2004, the Ocean Jewel quickly became a black eye for the city after the Coast Guard uncovered several safety violations on the casino ship, among other problems.
In recent years, marine research has played a significant role in charting the port's future. SRI International announced it would build a new marine research facility at the port in 2006.
The city tore down the port's last remaining warehouse to make way for the site, which further curtailed the harbor's moneymaking capabilities. Area companies had rented out the warehouse for storage.
Despite a long history of hiccups, area leaders have never tired of trying to come up with ideas for the port.
Bobby Spaeth, owner of Madeira Beach Seafood, said he is eager to see the port be converted into an outdoor fish market.
"A fisherman's wharf would give people something to do downtown," he said. "You could sell ice and fuel to the fisherman to make money."
Council member Earnest Williams said the city should reconsider dredging the port to accommodate large cruise ships.
"We just need to stay at it. It could be a tremendous economic driver," he said.
But Jack Tunstill, chairman of the Albert Whitted Advisory Committee and a flight instructor at the airport, said the city needs to move on.
"A cruise port it is not," he said. "I have been here for 20 years, and nothing that has come into the port has stayed. The Sea Escape, the Ocean Jewel. None of that stuff has worked."
To learn more about the port or to register to attend the public input session, call the city's marina at (727) 893-7329.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or [email protected]