ST. PETERSBURG — The city's efforts to energize its downtown port could get a big boost from the federal government.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could build a new facility along the downtown waterfront that would also be home port for the first of its research vessels to be stationed in Florida.
It all depends on what Congress does. But a good first sign was Thursday's announcement by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson that the Senate Commerce Committee he sits on approved a provision that could make the facility a reality.
It specifically orders the Secretary of Commerce to develop a "strategic plan" for building or acquiring a NOAA station in St. Petersburg.
"(It's) not a done deal yet, but getting it passed in committee is a significant hurdle," said the senator's spokesman Ryan Brown.
There are several steps still to come — getting passed by the full U.S. Senate, then the U.S. House, then being signed by the president, then getting it funded — but the news was greeted with jubilation by city officials.
"This is great news," Mayor Rick Kriseman said. "It's a great step forward.
"We've been working on this for a long time now, along with our congressional delegation, and are certainly very appreciative of the senator's actions, which is a great step towards making this a reality."
No one yet knows how much such a facility would cost, how many it would employ or which ship would be assigned to it. However, city development administrator Alan DeLisle said the move would boost St. Petersburg's marine sciences and research industry, which is clustered around Bayboro Harbor.
"It makes that strength of ours even stronger," he said. "We can't wait to be able to work on this and make this happen."
It would also add to the city's emerging Innovation District, which includes the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute and SRI International on Bayboro Harbor, as well as nearby hospitals.
A NOAA research ship would also add to the number of large vessels now calling St. Petersburg home. The city hopes to attract more vessels following the successful trial run of the Cross-Bay Ferry, which connected downtown St. Petersburg to Tampa. Elected leaders on both sides hope to bring the ferry back.
Downtown is the winter home of the tall ship Lynx, an 1800s-era replica schooner and floating museum. Port St. Pete is also home to the Sir Winston, a luxury yacht available for excursions, corporate and other events. And the new Marine Discovery Center will open in the port's terminal, which is being refurbished.
City officials hope those pieces, in conjunction with plans to build the new Pier District, will draw more vessels for entertainment, tourism and education to the downtown waterfront.
The addition of the NOAA operation will be "a perfect fit to join what we've already got," in the research and marine science hub, Kriseman said. He said discussions have been taking place with Nelson, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and NOAA officials for months.
The city even has a location in mind. St. Petersburg leases property to SRI International on Eighth Avenue SE, near the city's port. The new NOAA facility could be located just west of SRI, which is at 450 Eighth Ave. SE.
NOAA is a federal science agency under the Department of Commerce that focuses on the oceans and the weather. It currently has 16 ships, which it describes as "the largest civilian research fleet in the United States." Its website shows that ports include Pascagoula, Miss., Charleston, S.C., San Diego, Calif., and Kodiak, Alaska.
However, NOAA has had a bad run in the bay area lately. In November, the agency lost its hangar space at MacDill Air Force Base and had to relocate its aircraft operations center, 110 employees and its small fleet of "hurricane hunter" aircraft to the Lakeland Linder Regional Airport.
Nelson noted in his announcement that "despite having the second longest coastline in the U.S.," no NOAA research vessels are based in Florida. In a statement to the Tampa Bay Times, the U.S. senator also said NOAA would be "well served to have one of its ships here" because of Florida's "vast coastline" and the Tampa Bay area's "concentration of top-notch ocean scientists."
DeLisle declined to talk about possible incentives that might be offered to the federal agency to make that happen. "We are looking at putting a very strong financial package together that will make sense to NOAA," he said.
For its part, NOAA officials said the agency would not discuss the proposed St. Petersburg facility, which was tucked into a $18.9 billion Coast Guard spending bill.
"As a practice, we don't comment on pending legislation or speculate on what might happen if and when a bill becomes law," said Scott Smullen, NOAA's acting director of communications.
From Nelson's committee, the bill will now go to the full Senate and the House. If passed, it will be sent to the president for his signature.
"We're ready to go," Kriseman said.
Contact Waveney Ann Moore at @[email protected] or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.