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St. Pete leaders see potential in port, but challenges too

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's port has befuddled officials for years.

Despite its downtown location, it is small and often overshadowed by its big sister across the bay.

Officials have tried various ideas to jump-start economic development at the site, ranging from attempts to woo cruise ships to a fresh seafood market.

None have been that successful. Last year, port revenue was $57,875, but it cost more than $300,000 to operate, including about $100,000 for security.

City leaders are starting to get frustrated.

"For 15 years this has been the enterprise with the greatest relative subsidy relative to results," City Council member Karl Nurse said at a recent meeting on this port.

Nurse and other council members wanted to hear what the city staff thought about bringing more business to the port. The staff members' message: There is potential there, but also significant challenges.

Some are extremely basic. There is limited utility service at the terminal building, something officials said detracts from the location. With a depth of 23 feet, the port can handle large commercial vessels and yachts up to 450 feet long, but it is not equipped for cargo handling or lots of parking.

In addition, officials said it has been difficult to attract tenants who will improve the property because they want long leases, and current rules allow up to only 10 years.

"The land development is what is going to generate the most revenue," said Dave Metz, downtown enterprise facilities director. "We really need to come up with a plan to develop the land side."

Metz and port manager Walt Miller said the city should continue to foster ties to the marine science and research industry given its proximity to the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and SRI International research institute, which in 2010 built a facility on the property although it does not pay rent.

Officials also said they have developed stronger ties to Port Tampa Bay in Hillsborough County and plan to team up for marketing and business development in the future.

Currently, the NAUTILUS, an exploration vessel, is docked for six months at the port, undergoing $1 million in renovations. It will bring in $31,000 in dockage fees, Miller said.

Nurse and others said they wondered if more couldn't be done. Council member Jim Kennedy said it is time to "think big" with the port.

"I would not bank on marine research on being where you're going to be able to expand," council member Amy Foster said.

Nurse said a few years ago, a Fortune 500 company was interested in the property but the city turned it down because it was not marine science-related. At this point, Nurse said, the city shouldn't be picky.

"It seems to me if I had a 12,000-square-foot building on the waterfront we should be able to rent that," he said. "Overwhelmingly the vast majority of businesses are leasing, and the vast majority are leasing for less than 10 years. That's the opportunity that's in front of us."

Council member Bill Dudley said updating utilities will be key.

"Until we get electricity and get everything up to speed, it's going to be very difficult to market anything," he said. "Until that time I think we'd probably waste a lot of money. "

Staff members are supposed to come back to council with more ideas in April.

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com, (727) 893-8643 or @cornandpotatoes on Twitter.

St. Pete leaders see potential in port, but challenges too 03/04/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 4, 2014 4:18pm]
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