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Port Panama City Maximizes Space


With little space to expand, Port Panama City officials must plan for every square foot.


With five- and 10-year master plans in the works, the Port Authority at the small but busy facility is exploring ways to adapt best to the changing game of world trade as markets evolve, ships get bigger and trade routes shift.


For Port Director Wayne Stubbs, a well-thought-out plan and smart investments are the port’s bread and butter.


“It’s important for me and my board … so we’re not always debating what we’re going to build,” Stubbs said. “We make sure it’s carefully thought out and researched.”


In the last decade, the port has tripled the amount of cargo handled annually with the help of $75 million in facilities investments. But with about 40 percent of the port’s 110 acres occupied by tenants Oceaneering and Berg Steel Pipe, meeting expansion goals to keep the port sustainable is a balancing act.


“We’re getting a lot of bang for the buck at this port,” Stubbs said. “We’re so small we really have to plan, plan, plan for every square foot.”


A master plan also helps qualify the port for grant funding through the Florida Department of Transportation and other agencies, which accounted for about 17 percent of the port’s $13.7 million operating revenue last year. A majority of FDOT grants require a 50 percent match from the Port Authority.


Moving forward
While Port Panama City is one of Florida’s smaller ports, FDOT district spokesman Ian Satter said it has carved out a niche and is now working to broaden its ability to handle goods and services by improving its facilities.


“When you look at the Panhandle area, in Panama City for example, you have a port that brings in 50 percent of the copper that comes in through the U.S.,” Satter said. “We’re improving these ports so they become more attractive to people bringing in these goods.”


For Port Panama City, growth is all about building on that niche for smaller ships carrying valuable cargo.


In the last five years it has seen a 74 percent increase in cargo value. In 2012, the port handled more than $3 billion worth of waterborne cargo, ranking in Florida’s top five ports for cargo value.


Currently, the Port of Progreso in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is one of the Panama City port’s most valuable trading partners, with ships coming in twice a week carrying a variety of goods. The two facilities signed a Sister Port agreement in 2008, outlining a commitment to promote shipping activity along the route.


The port also is one of the country’s biggest importers of high-value copper, which has emerged as one of its largest and most well-known imports.


But to keep the momentum going and remain sustainable, port officials are looking beyond what’s working now. Currently, major ports in Florida and the United States are staring down a lofty challenge to accommodate bigger ships calling fewer ports as trade from Europe and Asia increases.


“Most of the major ports are having to invest hundreds of millions of dollars, sometimes up to a billion dollars, to be ready for these big ships,” said Stubbs, describing a “high stakes” situation on the East Coast. “They’re all scrambling to do it because none of them want to lose the business.”


However, Stubbs sees Panama City’s future trade partners much closer to home — through Caribbean transshipment hubs in places such as Kingston , Jamaica , or Freeport , the Bahamas .


“Nobody really expects these big ships to come into the Gulf. … There’s not enough cargo for them to just come into the Gulf and back,” said Stubbs, who added that Panama City instead will seek to attract smaller, regional ships. “We’re looking for a combination of a regional trader that also links us to some of those hubs. That’s what our focus is on in terms of growth.”


Stretching the dollars
To further enhance funding opportunities for the port, FDOT consultants are working hand in hand with port consultants to jointly write the master plan, which will be considered for adoption sometime this fall.


FDOT will contribute about $8 million in grant funding to the facility this year to support projects to relocate and expand truck staging, refurbish warehouses, improve rails and aid in a container terminal expansion project with a $9.5 million price tag.


The project includes several components to help increase container trade, including a $4.4 million mobile harbor crane and container-handling equipment, support plugs for refrigerated containers, expansion of the container yard and relocation of the port’s molasses tank, the only other option for expanding the container handling area.


“We could double or triple our container trade with the space we’ve made,” said Stubbs, who added that container trade accounts for about 30 percent of port activity and allows for a high density and diversity of goods. “Moving that molasses tank is the only thing we could do for more container space.”


A major goal of the port’s current master plan, container trade expansion efforts likely will be completed in the next planning time frame, Stubbs said.


FDOT’s 2015 budget also includes a $1 million appropriation, a 75 percent matching grant, for a $1.3 million project to improve the port’s west berth so it can support its new, heavier cranes.


Much of the port’s grant funding comes from the FDOT Strategic Intermodal System program, which prioritizes a network of transportation systems considered critical to the health of the state’s economy and future growth. But it also gets grants from the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development program, which doles out about $15 million to Florida ports annually, and the state Intermodal Logistics Center program, from which Port Panama City received a $900,000 grant to construct a new distribution center on U.S. 231 last year.


The state also offers grants through its Strategic Port Investment Initiative, a $35 million per year minimum offering for port infrastructure projects across the state.


Overall, Satter outlined $138.9 million in the state budget this year for seaport infrastructure across Florida.


“These seaports are economic engines for Florida and for the communities they reside in,” Satter said. “For us, investing in seaports is a good way to invest in the economy of Florida and invest in these communities.”

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