PORT MANATEE — They're cracked the champagne in Panama over the weekend to celebrate the opening of a $5.25 billion expansion of that nation's storied canal, more than a century after the first ship sailed through the isthmus.
The project — roughly a year and a half behind schedule but still with revolutionary potential — is expected to rewrite maritime routes, save an estimated $8 billion per year and open Pacific markets to East Coast ports more widely than ever before.
Port Manatee's roots are in the phosphate industry. It was established as a place to load the primary ingredient in fertilizer onto ships bound for global destinations.
But the port has expanded broadly through the decades.
Port Manatee is a prominent player in supplying everything from gasoline to fresh fruits and vegetables, its 10 berths serving container, bulk, breakbulk (transporting cargo in separate pieces, rather than in containers), heavy lift (oversized items weighing more than 100 tons or having a height or width greater than 325 feet), project and general cargo customers.
"The port grows based on attracting new services," said Carlos Buqueras, Port Manatee's executive director. "We are everywhere — locally, domestically, internationally — because if we aren't, other ports are going to be eating our lunch."
In an agreement signed in late 2015 with Racetrac Petroleum Inc., Port Manatee serves as the fuel hub for a nine-county region encompassing more than 30 of the company's stores, from Hillsborough County south to Collier and west to Okeechobee counties.
While Port Manatee is responsible for the flow of nearly 100 million gallons of gasoline each year, its top import is fruit.
The deepwater port has more refrigerated square-footage on its docks — five refrigerated warehouses — than any other port in Florida, its managers say.
Fresh Del Monte, an international fresh fruit and vegetable distributor in Coral Gables, is one of the port's leading distributors, bringing in a ship each week and sometimes two, depending on the season, from Central American plantations. By the end of 2015, Port Manatee, which Fresh Del Monte chose as its southwest distribution center 20 years ago, had more than 1 billion bananas and 44 million pineapples come across its docks.
The port also has gotten into some higher technology pursuits.
In 2012, with incentives provided by the state and Manatee County, Air Products and Chemicals Inc. committed to 32 acres of property adjacent to Port Manatee to build a 300,000-square-foot plant. The manufacturer, a unit of the Fortune 500 company of the same name, makes heat exchangers — huge devices that cool natural gas into a concentrated, liquid form for transport.
"They could've chosen anywhere in the world, certainly anywhere in the U.S., to build that facility, and they chose Port Manatee," Buqueras said. "It has added hundreds of high-paying jobs, and put it right across the street."
Port officials said the first few heat exchangers are slated to be ready to ship in the last quarter of the year or the beginning of 2017. Each one can take up to 18 months to complete.
The equipment will go through final assembly across from the port's south gate before being shipped out. A $1 million modernization project began earlier this month, temporarily closing the south gate, that will widen the route to accommodate the large exchangers. That project is expected to be completed by Sept. 1.
Think of a ship as long as the Empire State Building is tall.
The original Panama Canal, constructed by the United States in the early 1900s at a cost of $375 million, was limited to ships around 1,000 feet long. The expansion project built new locks and expanded waterways so that it now can accommodate 1,200-foot-long vessels, commonly referred to as "New Panamax" ships.
The work, initially scheduled for completion in October 2014 to roughly coincide with the canal's 100-year anniversary, fell behind because of a variety of hurdles, including labor strikes and leaks detected in late 2015.
While Port Manatee will not receive direct shipments from the new, gigantic ships that will be able to use the expanded Panama Canal, port managers expect to benefit as those cargoes are broken into smaller portions. Port Manatee has been gearing up for years to deal with the arrival of the New Panamax cargo by adding and renovating berths.
Berth 12 was extended in 2013, resulting in the creation of Berth 14. Combined, the two are more than 1,500 feet long, capable of handling Panamax-sized ships. The creation of Berth 14, port managers said, was the latest large-scale infrastructure project at the port. It was completed in October 2013.
The port has since renovated the six original berths surrounding its inner harbor — berths six through 11. They are more than 40 years old, and their rehabilitation is expected to be completed one at a time. Berth 9 was chosen as the first rehabilitation, which began in February and is expected to be completed next summer, because of its condition and future need. Each rebuild will take roughly a year and cost $11 million to $12 million.
"It's a pretty ambitious project. We're looking in excess of about $72 million to do all of the berths," said Dave Sanford, Port Manatee's deputy executive director. "The rehabilitation is somewhat linked to the new Panama Canal. Over time, we've lost load-bearing capacity in those docks as they've aged, so we're increasing that to be able to handle larger ships and heavier cargoes."
The renovation isn't the only project the port is undertaking to possibly advance its position with the expanded canal. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently began studying the possibility of deepening the port's harbor channel from 40 to 43 feet. The channel runs about 3 miles from the main ship channel in Tampa Bay into Port Manatee's inner harbor.
"When you add the tidal range — ships will sail in on a high tide — they have that additional water to come in," Sanford explained. "That's 45 feet of water … and 45 feet of water will accommodate most any vessel that we would think to bring in."
To get its piece of the pie from the expanded Panama Canal, officials at Port Manatee expect to tap so-called transshipment ports, which can accommodate the New Panamax ships. Those centers include Freeport, Bahamas, and Kingston, Jamaica, where the New Panamax cargoes will be divided and shipped out on smaller ships to destinations such as Port Manatee.
"That's where most of the growth is expected to come from — from the transshipment off the larger ships," Buqueras said.
While numerous variables may affect how successful the Panama Canal is and how quickly its effects are felt, Port Manatee officials still expect to gain ground.
"We think it's a great thing for shipping, and certainly expect to benefit from it," Sanford said. "The only question is time — how long it takes to evolve new patterns of transshipment, sorting out itineraries — that takes some time. But all in all, it's going to be very positive for our region and for the port."