Tens of thousands of Tampa Bay area residents will spend this holiday weekend digging their toes into the gulf sands in the unofficial passage to summer. It is a good time to take a moment and envision something on the horizon beyond the turquoise waters and glistening sun.
The Tampa Port Authority is exploring whether to build a new terminal somewhere west of the Sunshine Skyway to attract the next generation of cruise ships that are too big to sail under the bridge. As far as war-gaming goes, the exercise is fine; the port has an obligation as a publicly owned entity to plan ahead and remain competitive, and that includes figuring out where its cruise ship business fits into the larger picture. But moving ahead would have broad implications for the port. And the impacts on Pinellas and Manatee counties warrant a regional discussion.
The idea, in its earliest stages, calls for building new passenger terminals somewhere south of the Pinellas coast, either off Fort De Soto or near Egmont Key, a barrier island at the mouth of the entrance to Tampa Bay. That would enable the newer vessels — which have twice the capacity as the 2,500 passenger-sized ships now coming into Tampa — to avoid the Skyway entirely. The ships could load and unload passengers using smaller boats that could enter the bay or move north to Pinellas, thus keeping Tampa a viable destination in the future.
The scheme even prompted Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist this month to offer the bizarre suggestion that perhaps if Tampa moved the cruise ship business near Pinellas, St. Petersburg would allow the Tampa Bay Rays to look at stadium sites in Hillsborough.
But long before that conversation happens, the port needs to decide whether it truly can or even should compete for the megaship business. Tampa carries only a fraction of the passengers three other Florida ports do — the Port of Miami, Port Everglades and Port Canaveral, which are the top three cruise ports in the nation. These ports already have the infrastructure and name identities with the major carriers, and they are continuing to invest to build their businesses. Tampa would be competing almost from scratch. And it could sap the effort to build on its primacy in the cargo business.
Port director Richard Wainio insists the idea is conceptual. The review he presents to his board should be realistic about the sites, costs, environmental issues and other major concerns. The authority should also reach out to Pinellas and Manatee; any passenger terminal west of the Skyway is bound to affect the environment, visual aesthetics, and maritime safety and traffic in these adjoining coastal counties, which have thriving fishing and tourism industries. The port also needs to further explore whether the megaships are an all-or-nothing business model, or whether a port with limited access, such as Tampa, can make a go by pursuing midsized and boutique cruise ships.
There are other issues, too, from financing and permitting, that would impact the port and communities across the region. The cruise ship industry revolves around churning heavy numbers of people. The port board needs to recognize the implications at the outset, and it should invite the same soul searching from its neighboring counties.