Economic developers say it's still an uphill battle to sell companies on the advantages of Gulf shipping.
By Amy Welch
Each week Tampa-based Gulf Caribbean Transport ships about 500 Mexican-made PT Cruisers and Dodge Ram Trucks across the Gulf of Mexico through Tampa's port and distributes them to car dealers in Florida.
Shipping across the Gulf instead of trucking the cars through Texas and other Gulf states shaves about 10 days from manufacturer to dealer, which has helped Gulf Caribbean grow by 25% in the last year, says CEO Jim Thomas. "The numbers could dramatically increase" this year, he says -- other U.S. companies have approached him about sending steel, electronics and tires to Mexico to help build the cars he hauls.
It's the kind of traffic that economic officials in the region have been trying to encourage for years now, and they're hopeful that Gulf Caribbean's results and some other trends indicate the Tampa-Mexico connection is catching on.
It's an uphill battle: Trade between Florida companies and Mexico still amounts to just about 1.5% of the nation's trade south of the border -- a figure that has not changed much since the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
Gary Springer, secretary-general of the Gulf of Mexico States Accord, a position created by the Florida Department of State in 1999, works to create business opportunities between five U.S. and six Mexican Gulf states. He blames "old habits'' on the reluctance to ship across the Gulf. Businesses in the Southeastern U.S. are used to shipping through Texas and Miami because the infrastructure is there, Springer says. But it may not be as cost-effective. Springer, who's pushing the advantages of the 1,000-mile Tampa-Mexico shipping route, says cargo shipped across the Gulf reaches its destination about five to 10 days sooner than if it's transported by land.
Some signs offer hope: In just one year, the port of Tampa almost doubled its trade with Mexico, from 7% of the port's total foreign shipments in 1999 to about 13% in 2000.
Springer, who is based in Tampa, is working on several events to bring Mexican and Florida businesses together. In May, the accord will host a consortium to help Florida and Mexican businesses create more maritime deals. Also in the spring, several agricultural business leaders from Mexico will visit three central Florida cattle farms to discuss hauling beef through Tampa's port to Mexico.
"We make what Mexico buys," says Springer, adding that the state could increase growth by about 1%, or to about $4 billion in trade. But it's a lot of work to get rid of those old habits. "The Gulf of Mexico is a highly unutilized NAFTA superhighway," Springer says.
In the News
Clearwater -- Tech Data Corp. (Nasdaq-TECD) has been named to the Forbes Platinum 400, a ranking of the nation's "best big companies." The IT products provider, ranked 218th, has made the list the last four years. Companies are picked for their long- and short-term return on capital and growth in sales and earnings.
Congress will give the Tampa Bay Regional Reservoir a $9.6-million boost, but Tampa Bay Water, the region's wholesale water supplier, is hoping for more. The company wants to build a 15-billion-gallon above-ground reservoir this year and is $20.4 million short of its $57-million goal for federal aid. The total project is expected to cost more than $100 million.
Eagle Marketing Services, a direct marketing agency, is joining forces with Clearwater-based Eva-Tone, a provider of print, mailing services, fulfillment, CD/DVD replication and e-business/multimedia development. Eagle Marketing has moved its operations from Fort Collins, Colo., to Eva-Tone's headquarters.
Dunedin -- A three-story, 76-room Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites recently opened in downtown Dunedin. It is the city's first Holiday Inn affiliate.
Lakeland -- The Florida Department of Citrus, based in Lakeland, has launched a six-month, $20-million national advertising campaign, its first since 1998.
Lee County -- Lee County is taking a page from the Big Apple's advertising book. The county's chamber of commerce recently launched its www.iloveleecounty.com website modeled after the "I [love] New York" campaign. The site is designed to direct more business to the county's rural areas. The chamber is also hosting an "I [love] Lee County Expo" this month, displaying products made in the county.
Naples -- Naples-based Gulf Coast National Bank and First National Bank of the Florida Keys have merged to create Orion Bank, which will be headquartered in Naples. Both banks are owned by First Bancorp Inc., the second-largest privately held bank holding company in Florida, with more than $600 million in total assets.
Polk County -- University of Florida economic researchers estimate that Polk County's population likely reached 500,000 last summer, based on its population of 496,923 on April 1 and growth patterns since the 1920s. Polk now ranks eighth in population among Florida counties. Between 1920 and 1930, the county's population grew 87%. Growth slowed after that but has been steadily increasing. In 1980, the population was 321,652. Economic development officials hope to attract more business by touting the area as a more urban county.
St. Petersburg -- Portable On Demand Storage (PODS), based in St. Petersburg, has opened a franchise operation in Atlanta. The company, which provides portable storage units, has expanded rapidly since 1998 to 25 company-owned and franchise operations.
St. Petersburg is converting 20 blocks along 8th Avenue North and 9th Avenue North back to two-way traffic. The change will cost about $10,000. The city spent thousands of dollars from 1960 to 1981 making the streets one-way. The city hopes to open up more of its one-way streets to two-way traffic partly to make the downtown business district more accessible for customers.
Tampa -- Capital One Financial Corp. is expanding its auto finance business into Tampa, adding 100 jobs. For the last six years, the Falls Church, Va.-based holding company has been expanding its Tampa presence, stepping employment up to 2,600. It plans to add more than 1,000 local jobs over the next six years.
SRI Surgical Express (Nasdaq-STRC) faces a class-action lawsuit after restating its third-quarter earnings. The company originally reported a profit of $1.8 million on sales of $22.4 million. It later revised its profit to $1.5 million and sales to $21.3 million. The company said it had improperly recognized some sales in the third quarter that should have been part of the fourth quarter. SRI provides hospitals with surgical products.
Hydrogen Media Runs out of Gas
TAMPA -- Hydrogen Media, a website development company that developed a high profile during the dot-com boom, shut its doors in January. Investors, including top executives at Outback Steakhouse, say the company ran out of cash. Clients included Holland & Knight Consulting, Arvida, Colliers Arnold and the Tampa Bay Lightning. At its peak, Hydrogen Media had 170 employees and once turned down a $60-million buyout offer.