From West Central Florida, with diverse growth at Port Manatee and new container cranes at Port Tampa Bay, to the Florida Panhandle, where Port Panama City is positioning to double activity and the Port of Pensacola is advancing multiple projects, seaports along the Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State are busy as ever.

And the number of active Florida Gulf cargo ports is poised to increase as the Port of Port St. Joe moves closer to resuscitation on the Panhandle, while efforts to develop Port Citrus along an inland barge canal 90 miles north of Tampa are failing to stay afloat.

Beginning near the entrance to Tampa Bay and heading northward, then west along the Panhandle, here is the latest at Florida Gulf Coast ports:

Grain terminal at Port Manatee
Grain terminal at Port Manatee

Port Manatee Looking to benefit from its propitious position as the closest U.S. deepwater port to the newly expanded Panama Canal, Port Manatee is currently realizing gains on container and liquid bulk cargo fronts while building global commercial ties through the International Trade Hub at the Port Manatee Intermodal Center.

Midway through its second year, World Direct Shipping’s weekly containership service from the Port of Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz, is bringing in a steady flow of refrigerated Mexican produce, joining Central American pineapples and bananas imported by longtime tenant Fresh Del Monte Produce. At the same time, Port Manatee has become the Southwest Florida hub for RaceTrac Petroleum Inc., moving fuel by barge and truck for filling gas tanks of more than 20,000 vehicles on a typical day.

By fall, Port Manatee anticipates extending its activity in the project/heavylift realm as well, with the Air Products and Chemicals Inc. facility that opened just outside port gates in 2014 preparing to complete fabrication of its first 500-or-so-ton liquefied natural gas heat exchanger to be shipped from the port.

Two new post-Panamax cranes cast a heavy shadow as they join three smaller gantries already in place at Port Tampa Bay’s container terminal
Two new post-Panamax cranes cast a heavy shadow as they join three smaller gantries already in place at Port Tampa Bay’s container terminal

Port Tampa Bay Up near the top of Tampa Bay, two shiny new post-Panamax cranes have joined three smaller container gantries already in place at Port Tampa Bay, which despite a recent cargo downturn retains a firm grip on its No. 1 ranking among Florida ports as measured by tons handled, thanks in part to its continued domination in bulk cargo sectors.

The new cranes arrived from China’s Shanghai Zhenhua Heavy Industries Co. Ltd. in April at the Port Tampa Bay container terminal amid fanfare that the units, which cost a combined $25 million, will help the port better serve via bigger containerships a dynamic Central Florida consumer market that includes nearly 10 million residents plus more than 60 million annual tourists.

Enhanced highway and rail links have improved Port Tampa Bay’s multimodal connectivity, while demand-based plans are afoot to ultimately expand the port’s container terminal, operated by Ports America Florida Inc., to as many as four times the current 40 acres. Future plans also call for construction of a new on-dock cold storage facility.

Port Citrus

A vision first conceived in the late 1960s and advanced five years ago by some then-sitting members of the Citrus County Commission for an inland port along the 12-to-15-foot-deep Cross Florida Barge Canal nearly 100 miles north of Tampa appears to have sunk.

The current commission, sitting as the Citrus County Port Authority, has come out against the notion that such a port would be a financial boon and has taken steps this year to abandon the idea – after the earlier spending of more than $300,000 on studies and member fees in the Gulf Ports Association of the Americas and the Florida Ports Council.

The plans, which once called for a cargo port handling containers as well as bulk goods, could now at most bring a boat ramp and marina.

Port of Port St. Joe

A more favorable fate maybe in the cards for the Port of Port St. Joe, on the Gulf Coast at the center of the Florida Panhandle.

At the May meeting of the Port St. Joe Port Authority, a proposal under the code name Project Thomas was presented, calling for an undisclosed private company to lease a waterfront site that had been home to an Arizona Chemical pine chemical facility site. Also, officials said a contract with a woodchip exporter was in the works.

Channel dredging already has gained federal permitting to go as deep at 37 feet, while a short-line rail rehabilitation project has gotten under way. Rebirth of the Port of Port St. Joe has been eyed since the 1998 shuttering of the city’s paper mill and box plant.

Port Panama City, which looks to develop a new forest products terminal on a separate waterfront site, already is a busy seaport on the Florida Panhandle
Port Panama City, which looks to develop a new forest products terminal on a separate waterfront site, already is a busy seaport on the Florida Panhandle

Port Panama City Development of a new forest products terminal on 41 acres acquired in May is seen as having potential for doubling the throughput capability of the central Panhandle’s Port Panama City, which in 2015 handled a record volume of more than 2 million tons.

The waterfront tract, obtained for $13.6 million in state-financed funding from ongoing corrugated packaging mill operator WestRock Co., with an option for 27 more acres, is to be the site of a $12 million breakbulk terminal featuring a 250,000-square-foot forest products warehouse, a rail yard, 10 acres of laydown area and a refurbished 38-foot-draft berthing area. Federal approval already has been gained for a project to deepen the channel serving the site to 38 feet from 32 feet.

Port Panama City already is a hub for exports of paper and wood pellets and imports of steel and copper cathodes, and it continues to host twice-weekly calls in Linea Peninsular’s service from Progreso, Mexico. Indeed, port officials saw the acquisition as imperative for growth, as existing facilities are operating near capacity.

At the west corner of Florida’s Panhandle, Port Pensacola has emerged as a bustling hub for serving the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and gas vessel sector.
At the west corner of Florida’s Panhandle, Port Pensacola has emerged as a bustling hub for serving the Gulf of Mexico offshore oil and gas vessel sector.

Port Pensacola Building upon its diverse Northwest Florida presence, Port Pensacola is advancing a $14 million rehabilitation at its Berth 6 property, with intent to reopen a closed dock by late 2018. The project should help the port, which is owned and operated by the City of Pensacola, to retain operations of bulk tenants Cemex and Martin Marietta while offering capacity for as many as 365 additional vessel dockage days annually.

Expanding Port Pensacola’s niche role in serving the offshore energy vessel sector is a $2 million undertaking to convert an existing warehouse into a heavylift crane facility by early 2017. That should allow mobilization, maintenance and repair provider Offshore Inland Marine to diversify the range of services it offers to the offshore and subsea construction fleet by adding dockside fabrication of subsea project components.

In addition, a $2 million downtown ferry landing project is facilitating further diversification, with plans calling for spring 2017 initiation by a concessionaire of passenger service to Fort Pickens on the Gulf Islands National Seashore and the Pensacola Beach Boardwalk.