President Barack Obama's stop in Tampa on Friday en route to this weekend's inter-American summit may have been another opportunity to get some face time in this swing state. But his appearance at the Port of Tampa also serves as a reminder of the importance that the port and foreign trade play in growing jobs and the region's economy.
Obama spoke after touring the port at midday, calling attention to the growing middle class in Latin America and the clamor for U.S. goods. The president unveiled plans to help small businesses and those owned by Latinos get financing, technical assistance and other business-development leads. By connecting more small firms to overseas buyers, he hopes to boost American exports and domestic jobs.
Obama certainly had political reasons to underscore the Tampa Bay area's historic ties to Latin America, given the importance the Hispanic vote will play in his re-election effort. Friday's visit also marked the second time this week the president has visited the Sunshine State. Florida will be something of a branch campus of the White House between now and November, given the large swing vote and the cash machine that is the Democratic donor base.
Still, Obama's stop in Tampa highlights the port's value to this community. Tampa has Florida's largest port in terms of cargo tonnage, and its cruise and container business creates an $8 billion economic impact and a lifeline for tens of thousands of jobs.
Obama's trip may have been political, but his message should resonate throughout Tampa Bay. Forty percent of the port's exports go to Latin America, a region with three of Tampa's top five trading partners: Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. Tampa has more than a long history with Latin America; both are heavily entwined in each other's future. More than 2.5 million tons of fertilizer from Tampa's port enriches farms in the Caribbean and Central and South America. Steel exported from Tampa is used in the hemisphere for bridges, storage tanks and other public works. Firms from Latin America have invested here in citrus, building and other industrial sectors.
The port is a major regional asset, and its contribution will only grow as the expansion of the Panama Canal creates new trade and shipping opportunities. And a new overhead roadway under construction that will create a direct connection between the port and the interstate system will bring relief for truckers and local commuters alike. Tampa began its life as a thriving port city, and now new markets for foreign trade are sprouting throughout the region. The bay area should welcome its place in the global economy and remain committed to making it grow.