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St. Petersburg's downtown port awaits a purpose

ST. PETERSBURG — This city known for its stunning waterfront and beautiful nearby beaches owns another seaside asset that doesn't get as much publicity:

A port no one can quite figure out what to do with.

Located downtown near the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, the city's port has space for some big ships, like Tatoosh, a 302-foot yacht that has sometimes docked there.

But the port is much smaller than the industrial Port of Tampa, which has a deeper channel and serves as a docking point for cruise ships and tankers hauling oil, phosphate and other raw materials.

Over the years, St. Petersburg officials have studied the port and have considered using it as a launch point for gambling cruise lines, a destination for megayachts, and a fresh seafood market.

The 450-foot Ocean Jewel cruise ship docked there for a time, but it suffered a series of problems ending in bankruptcy.

The city subsidizes the port heavily, and there is a general sense it's not living up to its potential.

"The port is an albatross," said City Council member Karl Nurse. "For every dollar of revenue we're generating this year we're spending five."

Preliminary budget figures indicate that the port generated about $69,869 in revenue in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, but it cost the city $388,923 to operate, said Clay Smith, assistant director for downtown enterprise facilities. The numbers were similar the previous year.

One reason for the high subsidy is that city officials are required to provide round-the-clock security at the port, because ports are thought to be vulnerable to terrorism. The security alone costs about $180,000 a year.

Council members discussed some of these issues at a committee meeting last week and said they would like the city staff to make a presentation on the port early next year. It may be an opportune time for long-range planning, because the city already is in the midst of a comprehensive waterfront study.

Although the port's future seems uncertain, council member Steve Kornell said "its so obvious what that port should be." And that is a hub for marine science research, which he said is "an economic driver for our city."

The port is beside USF St. Petersburg's College of Marine Science, which uses research vessels for projects like studying the effects of the gulf oil spill.

It's near the SRI International research institution and other organizations that form a "marine science cluster" downtown. Using the port for research vessels could strengthen those groups and possibly increase the jobs they provide, Kornell said.

"We're going to come to that conclusion eventually, no matter how many cruise ships we try to bring in," he said.

"I think there could be something really fantastic out of that."

Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Follow @ckruegertimes on Twitter.

St. Petersburg's downtown port awaits a purpose 10/11/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 11, 2013 3:10pm]
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