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TAMPA'S PORT OF PLENTY // Where heavy duty meets high profile

Published Jul. 6, 2006

Like most engines, the Port of Tampa is not conventionally beautiful.

It is home to giant fuel tanks and warehouses, used-up cars awaiting a boat ride to Guatemala, shredded steel stacked several stories high, and shipyards with salt-scarred dry docks and cranes.

This bleak spit of land, formed from dredged bay bottom, is dusty in the winter's wind and muddy in the summer's storms.

Yet the unlovely peninsula just east of downtown Tampa provides tens of thousands of jobs and more than $5-billion a year to the Tampa Bay area.

That's why Bob Steiner, the Tampa Port Authority's new director, is fond of comparing the port to an engine that helps drive the local economy. "I doubt if there is any other industry that is that big," he says.

Like most engines, many of the Port of Tampa's machinations are hidden under the hood.

However, in recent years the port has begun to delve into some new, very visible ventures. The Florida Aquarium and a new cruise ship terminal were built side by side on the Garrison Channel. And a flashy entertainment complex is planned there, as well.

But don't be fooled by the port's new soft side. Despite the glamorous new ventures, most of the port's economic muscle still lies in heavy-duty bulk cargo.

Phosphate _ along with the chemicals that turn it into fertilizer _ is still king. That, and other heavy products, like rock and oil, combine to make Tampa one of the nation's top ports in terms of tonnage.

Most people get only glimpses of this side of the port's business. Perhaps a berthed freighter catches the eye and imagination of a driver speeding by on the Crosstown Expressway. Otherwise, few Tampa Bay residents ever see the port at work. Yet a lot of what we own and use once arrived here on a ship.

The gasoline in the car, the bananas in the fruit bowl, the steel and lumber in the buildings where we live and work, even the fertilizer that helped grow the wheat for the flour in the pantry, all probably passed through the Port of Tampa.

And when our cars are discarded and our buildings torn down, their raw steel probably will pass through the port once again, on its way to the Far East to be melted down and reused.

Even the frozen backs and legs of chickens, unwanted by Americans, will pass through this port on the way to Russia, where poultry is scarce and dark meat relished.

Steiner thinks of the port as five businesses _ bulk cargo (such as phosphate and oil), general cargo (things that arrive on pallets or in containers), shipbuilding and repair, cruise ships, and waterfront recreation.

While the last two are the port's newest and flashiest, Steiner is quick to say he doesn't consider them more important.

Like a father with five children, Steiner spends a lot of time trying to be fair in doling out his attention.

"We want to do the five lines of business. I think we must build on all five," he says.

That will create diversity, Steiner says. And that's important because so many of the port's businesses are volatile, spiking in some years, diving in others.

A place to play

"There's a fascination with the port," says Steiner, a former New York port executive who replaced Joe Valenti as the Tampa port's director last year.

He and the Tampa Port Authority's other commissioners are working to capitalize on that fascination by building a new type of port business _ waterfront recreation.

"A lot of ports have been into it," Steiner says, citing the Port of Baltimore as the most famous example. "But it's a new business for this port authority."

The port authority has carved out a 30-acre area on the edge of its property, sandwiched between the industrial section of Hooker's Point and the new Ice Palace hockey arena, as home to its new enterprise. Unlike the rest of its businesses, this one must be visually attractive.

A colorful cruise ship terminal and The Florida Aquarium are the newly built anchors for the Garrison Seaport Center development. The port has formed a partnership with a developer to build a 5,000-seat performance theater, a 20-screen movie theater complex, restaurants and shops.

The plan is to create an attraction that will keep cruise passengers in the area longer, so Tampa can capture more tourism dollars, and bring more local people to the port for entertainment.

"It's a tremendous opportunity to bring the community down to the waterfront," Steiner says. "That helps sell the story of how important the port is."

Things have been going more slowly than hoped. The port has talked about the entertainment complex for several years, but, except for the new cruise ship terminal, nothing is in the ground yet.

The Florida Aquarium's first-year attendance figures have been far below expectations, and its directors partly blame it on a lack of new development by the port. The aquarium rents its land from the port, which also is a guarantor on the aquarium's construction bonds. But the aquarium is independently operated.

Steiner isn't surprised or particularly worried about the Garrison Seaport Center's delays, saying it's better to wait and do things right than to build something quickly and poorly. "It has to be done right the first time," he says.

Making Garrison Seaport into a tourist attraction may help boost business for the port's already healthy cruise business.

While the number of ships and passengers passing through the port has increased dramatically in recent years, the port has suffered some setbacks, the most notable when Regency Cruise Lines shut down last fall. Still, by March three cruise ships will regularly call at Tampa.

The ports of Miami and Fort Lauderdale have a big jump on Tampa for Florida's cruise business. But the Tampa port's consultant, Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc., has reported that Tampa has a good chance of attracting some of those ships because of its proximity to the western Caribbean, an increasingly popular tourist destination.

Cargo central

Trade in bulk commodities has always been the port's bread and butter. That trend began more than 100 years ago when a deposit of phosphate rock was discovered east of town.

The mineral is one of three found in commercial fertilizers. As the use of commercial fertilizer grew, so did the Port of Tampa.

Phosphate and the components that help make it useful for plant nutrition still comprise the port's biggest cargo. Fuel oil comes second, giving Tampa a formidable presence in the bulk cargo business.

It is heavy bulk cargo that makes the Port of Tampa the nation's 11th-largest port in terms of total tonnage. More total tons of cargo are shipped through Tampa's port than through Florida's 12 other ports combined.

But while the bulk business continues to boom, port officials have some work to do in the general cargo area.

"One big job over the next few years is to attract more general cargo," Steiner says.

Some of the port's recent general cargo successes have come through Harborside, a refrigerated warehouse that the port owns and leases to an operator.

Food that needs to be kept cold, such as bananas and frozen chicken, is kept at Harborside until the ship, truck or train arrives to take it on the next leg of its journey.

Attracting more containerized cargo, which is shipped in large metal boxes that can be stacked on a ship or on a wharf, will be the port's next area of emphasis. Next year port officials plan to buy a new $1.5-million truck crane that will help lift the containers on and off the ships.

"We really need to find a couple of (new) carriers that will try Tampa out," Steiner says.

In shipshape

The port doesn't need to go looking for any ship repair or ship building businesses. There are already two ship repair yards and one ship building company there.

Tampa Shipbuilding, which has had a troubled past, was sold last fall to Delphi American Maritime Inc., a subsidiary of Greek-owned Forum Maritime S.A. The new owners have spent the past few months cleaning it up and now plan to start attracting business.

Ship building and repair companies are important to the port, but not only because they generate revenue in port fees. Their presence often attracts shipping companies that want to locate operations near repair facilities.

But Tampa has more than just ship repair facilities going for it as it fights for business. Location may be one of the port's most important assets. Trade with ports in Mexico and Central America is expected to grow drastically and Tampa is close to many of those locations.

And then there's the Cuba wild-card. A dream held by most Florida port directors is that trade to the island nation will resume soon.

Tampa is ideally located to do business there, Steiner says. Tampa is as close as Miami to Havana.

"We will see a huge increase in general cargo, as well as construction materials," he says.

And Tampa's cruise business is also likely to get a major boost if tourists start flocking to Cuba. "We will be a big player in that game," Steiner says.

The Port of Tampa

Tampa is Florida's largest port in terms of tonnage, handling 51.3-million tons of cargo in 1995. Here are some major tenants, nearby attractions and highlights of port activity.

Map key

1. Garrison Channel cruise ship terminals

2. Ice Palace

3. Tampa Port Authority headquarters

4. International Ship Repair

5. Tampa Shipbuilding

6. Cargill

7. CSX Phosphate

8. Gulf Marine Repair

9. Harborside

10. Holland America cruise terminal

11. Tampa shrimp docks

12. David J. Joesph yard

13. Winner Metals yard

14. Tampa Export yard

15. Florida Aquarium

16. Tampa Convention Center

What comes in

Petroleum products


Liquid sulfur


Sulfuric acid

Anhydrous ammonia

Citrus concentrate


What goes out


Phosphoric acid

Scrap metal

Citrus pellets (for cattle feed)



Frozen chicken

Used cars

The boon to the bay area

Estimated annual economic impact, direct and indirect: $5.5-billion

Jobs, direct and indirect: 68,000

Taxes generated annually by port and port-related activities: $683-million

In 1995, the port handled ...

4,140 seagoing vessels

275,580 cruise ship passengers

and every day it is visited by ...

14,000 trucks

4,000 cars

28 phosphate items


"We want to do the five lines of business. I think we must build on all five."

Bob Steiner

Tampa Port Authority