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Fruit imports, Cuban ferries straining truce between Tampa Bay ports

Port Tampa Bay, left, and Port Manatee have been rivals for half a century. They’re both bulk cargo ports trying to reinvent themselves as container and vehicle ports.
Port Tampa Bay, left, and Port Manatee have been rivals for half a century. They’re both bulk cargo ports trying to reinvent themselves as container and vehicle ports.
Published May 15, 2015

TAMPA — United Caribbean Lines CEO Bruce Nierenberg hopes to one day establish ferry travel to Cuba. He can picture ferries sailing from Port Tampa Bay.

But he sees the same thing when he looks at Tampa's neighbor — and rival — across the bay: Port Manatee.

"We'll choose the port that give us the best economics," Nierenberg said.

Cuba is not the only potential disruption to an uneasy nine-month truce between Tampa Bay's two cargo ports. Tampa's decision weeks ago to build its own fruit warehouse did not sit well with Manatee, which says it's the state's largest fruit importer.

New economic opportunities, it seems, could generate new tensions between the two ports. Still, the peace seems to be holding — for now.

"We're taking the high road here," said Manatee Port Authority chairwoman Carol Whitmore.

• • •

Tropical fruit is one of the fault lines running between the two ports.

Tampa's port was once famous for its banana docks. But that cargo dried up, and in 2009 Tampa tore down its dilapidated fruit warehouses.

In fiscal year 2014, Port Manatee handled 425,000 tons of fruit. Manatee has five refrigerated warehouses and receives avocados, bananas, limes, melons and pineapples, mostly from Costa Rica, Guatemala and Mexico.

But Tampa wants back in the game, and Manatee has long feared that Tampa will go after its customers.

Relations between the two ports were already at a low ebb last year. Then the Tampa Port Authority hosted a global pineapple conference in March 2014 — and physically blocked a Manatee official from attending. Tampa, by the way, does not import pineapples.

So in August, the former secretary of the Florida Department of Transportation himself brokered a truce between the two ports in neutral territory: St. Petersburg.

Both sides pledged greater cooperation. But Tampa Port Authority CEO Paul Anderson also offered his blunt assessment of the realities facing the state's ports.

"It's a clear misnomer to think there's no competition between regional ports," Anderson said at last year's port summit.

That competition is heating up again: The Tampa Port Authority's governing board voted March 16 to spend $20.8 million to build a refrigerated warehouse to store perishable foods.

Three days later, Manatee Port Authority board member Vanessa Baugh did not hold back.

"We have tried to abide by what the state asked us to do," she said during the board's March 19 meeting. "But we need to realize that in business, not everyone is aboveboard and honest."

The Tampa Port Authority is using $10.4 million in matching state funds to build its fruit warehouse. That concerns Manatee Port Authority CEO Carlos Busquera. He said FDOT officials have made it clear that state funds are not to be used to help regional ports compete against each other over the same customers.

"I would hope that Port Tampa Bay is not pursuing our customers and building a refrigerated facility just to move cargo around," Busquera told the Tampa Bay Times. "(The state) would be concerned if we're using their money to subsidize private industry by using state money to lure customers from one port to another."

Tampa Port Authority spokesman Edward Miyagishima said it is not negotiating with any of Manatee's current customers.

"No, not at all," he said. "We are creating a new line, new opportunities, for fruits and vegetables to enter through Florida and not competing whatsoever (with Manatee.)"

• • •

Tampa and Manatee could also compete for future business opportunities in Cuba.

President Barack Obama relaxed travel rules last year, and this month the U.S. government allowed a handful of ferry operators to carry passengers to the island. Now those U.S. companies are waiting for the Cuban government to permit ferry travel.

The Tampa Port Authority seems well-positioned to take on that new transportation industry.

The city has a natural connection to Cuba and a large population of Cuban-Americans who regularly travel there. Tampa also has cruise ship terminals, so it has the facilities and procedures in place to handle people traveling back and forth from another country.

Miyagishima said Port Tampa Bay has the edge.

"Tampa Bay, specifically Tampa, has the heritage," he said. "We have the facilities. The location of the airport is nearby. Downtown Tampa is nearby. They're all in proximity to Port Tampa Bay."

But Port Manatee wants in on the ferry business, too, even though it has no existing cruise ship business and is not equipped to handle any passenger vessels.

Busquera, though, said Manatee is ready to acquire the state and private funds it needs to build its own facility to handle passengers and ferries.

"The plan is ready," he said. "It's just a matter of taking it off the shelf."

Busquera said his port has an edge over Tampa in attracting the overnight ferries: It's three hours closer to Cuba than the cruise terminals in downtown Tampa.

That's always been Manatee's sales pitch over Tampa. It's even in the port's brand: "The right turn on Tampa Bay." When a ship enters the mouth of Tampa Bay, it just has to turn right to reach Port Manatee, rather than sail up the bay to Port Tampa Bay.

Ferry operators say they're looking at both ports.

"I think the difference will be in what kind of facilities these ferry operators want to use," Nierenberg said. "Port Tampa Bay is the major port in the Tampa Bay area for passenger traffic, and they have a lot of experience. They're more central to the population base of the Tampa Bay area.

"Port Manatee has a geographical advantage in that it's closer to the entrance of Tampa Bay. It's a shorter distance, so that means less fuel consumption."

Ferry fuel is expensive, Nierenberg said, and that extra six hours of consumption per trip can add up to thousands of additional dollars to sail out of Tampa.

However, Nierenberg added: "A port doesn't have an option of not having a facility."

Whitmore, who also sits on the Manatee County Commission, said she's not too worried about her port competing with Tampa for opportunities in Cuba.

Cuba's top diplomat to the United States, Jose Ramon Cabanas, spoke to the Manatee Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday and toured Port Manatee.

"He was very impressed," Whitmore said. "He sees a lot of potential here."

Miyagishima said Port Tampa Bay doesn't see Port Manatee's ambitions as a threat in the ferry business.

"We don't view it as competition whatsoever," he said.

• • •

Port Tampa Bay and Port Manatee have been rivals for half a century.

They're both bulk cargo ports trying to reinvent themselves as container and vehicle ports. But Tampa handles far more cargo — 36.2 million tons compared with Manatee's 7.2 million tons in fiscal year 2014.

Their relationship imploded in 2013. The Manatee Port Authority feared that the Tampa Port Authority was plotting a takeover. Tampa denied it, and state officials called the whole thing a misunderstanding. Then l'affair pineapple happened in 2014.

During last year's port summit, both sides agreed their top executives should continue to meet.

But Manatee officials said that at the next meeting, on Oct. 22, the port directors for Manatee and St. Petersburg showed up — but not Tampa's port director, Anderson.

The highest-ranking Tampa Port Authority official there was its vice president of governmental affairs.

No more meetings have been scheduled.

"What's the point if it's supposed to be with the port directors?" Whitmore said.

Hillsborough County Commission Chairwoman Sandra Murman, who sits on the Tampa Port Authority board, said those meetings may have been delayed because a new FDOT secretary took over in January.

She also said that Port Tampa Bay is not seeking business opportunities that conflict with Port Manatee.

"What we're doing they perceive as competition, but it's not," she said. "It's a totally different market. We're not going after their market."

An FDOT spokesman said that the agency's new secretary, Jim Boxold, has met with leaders from both ports and that more joint meetings will be held if needed.

"FDOT has encouraged the ports to cooperate on regional issues as opposed to competing for the same customers," spokesman Dick Kane said via email.

Busquera is a veteran of the state's biggest port rivalry: He worked at Port Everglades while it grew alongside the busy Port of Miami.

He said it's possible for both Port Manatee and Port Tampa Bay to grow without cannibalizing each other.

"I'm not worried about that," Busquera said. "I know that sounds weird. I know there's enough business for both of us.

"Trust me. We're knocking on doors, and I'm sure Tampa is."

Contact Jamal Thalji at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.