ST. PETERSBURG — Today's meeting of Tampa Bay's seaports was billed as a chance to promote regional economic development.
But in reality, it was a peace summit to heal the rift between Port Tampa Bay and Port Manatee.
Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad left no sports metaphor behind in declaring himself the referee of this regional economic conflict.
The state wasn't spending millions on Florida's ports so they could compete at the expense of each other, Prasad told a group of more than 50 officials and spectators attending the meeting at the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
"The goal here is not to steal from each other," Prasad said. "The goal is for Florida ports to steal from other state's ports."
Prasad sat between delegations from the Tampa Port Authority and the Manatee County Port Authority, who sat on opposite sides of the table.
The two ports have spent the past year at odds. Last year, Manatee accused Tampa port officials of seeking to combine both ports into one regional port authority.
Tampa officials denied that, and said it was a misunderstanding that started in Tallahassee. Prasad admitted that as well. But hard feelings still linger.
"I think this competitiveness being interpreted as combativeness is not helping at all," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on the Tampa Port Authority board.
"I feel tension in this room," said Manatee County Port Authority Chairwoman Carol Whitmore.
The consolidation issue was followed in March by another point of contention when the Tampa Port Authority hosted the International Pineapple Organization's Global Pineapple Conference in Tampa. It would not let Manatee officials attend the conference because of an exclusive agreement with the pineapple group.
Manatee feared that Tampa was encroaching upon its fruit cargo market.
"So what happened on the pineapple deal?" Prasad asked Tampa Port Authority CEO Paul Anderson.
Anderson said his port was offered an exclusive deal to host the pineapple conference and took it.
"It was really a miscommunication," he said, "but that's all I have to say about that."
Anderson then defended regional competition. It's inevitable and natural, he said, and in the end the free market will lead customers to decide which port to use.
"It's a clear misnomer to think there's no competition between regional ports," Anderson said.
Anderson pointed out that Port Miami and Port Everglades compete against each other over millions of dollars worth of cargoes.
"That's unacceptable, by the way," Prasad said of those two ports competing.
"I've got to call it what it is," Anderson said. "If anyone in this room wants to say otherwise, you have the wrong information."
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"I have to take exception to that," Prasad said. "No one is saying we don't want competition."
But Prasad also said that the state doesn't want its ports to undercut each other.
"If you use state dollars to take money away from other ports," Prasad said, "I have a problem with that."
When the room seemed to turn on Anderson, Murman came to the defense of the CEO of Port Tampa Bay, who has led the port since 2013.
"Our board has complete confidence in him," she said. "When we brought him onboard as CEO, you have to understand, we were stagnant.
"We weren't doing anything and we had a port director banking everything on the cruise business, which was not good."