Around the State- Southwest/ Tampa Bay- Aug. 2001
Buquebus has one last chance to make good on its promised ferry service from Fort Myers to Key West.
By Stacie Kress Booker
On the Caloosahatchee River in historic downtown Fort Myers sits a new, $1.6-million ferry terminal -- vacant. A $15-million, 150-foot, high-speed ferry that was to shuttle up to 500 passengers a day between Fort Myers and Key West sits unfinished in a New York boatyard. Both the terminal and the boat are the work of an Argentinian company called Buquebus, which made a deal with Fort Myers officials four years ago that it has so far been unable to keep.
Buquebus executives said the terminal would attract tourists and stimulate growth in Fort Myers, whose population grew by only 2% last year. The ferry would transport passengers to Key West in just three hours, with tickets costing $55 and $75 each way.
Eager to believe projections that the ferry would generate $900,000 in economic impact, Fort Myers officials shelled out more than $1 million to complete the terminal, improve road access to it and fortify the seawall. Today, however, "we're sitting here with an empty building," says a frustrated Mayor Jim Humphrey. With the opening of travel to Cuba looming in the future, Key West officials also were eager for the ferry service and also have an empty, unfinished terminal on their hands.
Buquebus blames its troubles on a weakening South American economy, rising fuel costs and litigation with the boat builder. It has failed to attract investors. Last year, Caterpillar Inc., which owns a stake in the boat, had agreed to take over the project from Buquebus but pulled out because of environmental concerns at the Key West terminal.
Buquebus, which was to own and operate the terminals, has handed over the buildings to city officials in both places, promising to pay rent. The company hasn't paid a dime, however. Buquebus claims new investors are on the horizon.
Meanwhile, Humphrey and Key West officials have given Buquebus an ultimatum: Have the passenger ferry in dock by Jan. 1, or the deal is off. They think they can find another company to run a ferry. Humphrey says he's lost confidence in Buquebus but still thinks the idea of a high-speed ferry is viable and would be a tourist magnet for his city. "We don't have the resources of a Naples or Sarasota," he says. "We need to attract more affluent families to spend time in our community."
In the News
Auburndale -- Calpine Corp. has received final regulatory approval to build a 540-megawatt gas-fired power plant in Auburndale. Calpine will sell the plant's power to Tampa-based Seminole Electric Cooperative. The plant is scheduled to be completed in June 2003.
Clearwater -- Tampa Bay Water approved five new water projects: Two desalination plants -- one in Pinellas County and the other in either Pasco or Pinellas; a well field at Cone Ranch in Hillsborough County; another well field in Pasco called Cypress Bridge II; and the recapture for potable use of 3.5 million gallons of water used by light industry in Plant City. The new water projects could boost residential water bills by as much as $17 a month.
Computer-equipment distributor Tech Data (Nasdaq-TECD) laid off dozens of workers in what the company says is a final round of cost-cutting. The company, which wouldn't say exactly how many were fired, now employs 2,500 in Clearwater.
Cryo-Cell International Inc. (Nasdaq-CCEL) is expanding its blood stem cell preservation program to Mexico and Central America.
Manatee County -- Gearbulk Inc. signed a letter of intent with the Manatee Port Authority to lease an additional 154,000 square feet of warehouse space in a deal worth $500,000 annually for the port. The international shipping company for forest products and non-ferrous metals, based in Esher, England, delivers lumber from South America to the port. It shipped 88,000 tons of cargo through the port last year.
Polk County -- According to a University of South Florida study, the economic impact of the arts in Polk County totals $35 million annually. Polk economic development officials were expecting the number to be higher. The study, funded through a $15,000 University of South Florida Community Initiative grant, was in response to an earlier study that gave Polk low marks for art resources. That one was funded by the GTE Foundation.
St. Petersburg -- Home Shopping Network has purchased Improvements, a home and garden catalog, from Weehawken, N.J.-based Hanover Direct Inc. for $33.4 million. The deal marks the return of the TV shopping network and internet retailer to the catalog business, which it abandoned in the early '90s.
Electronic equipment maker Jabil Circuit opened three design centers this spring despite an industry downturn and a disappointing 14% decline in revenues from the second to third quarter this year. The centers, in Bergamo, Italy; Penang, Malaysia; and Raleigh, N.C., will create designs for circuit boards and electronic systems and together will employ 1,000.
Mayor Rick Baker is organizing a high-tech task force, comprising 50 of the area's high-tech CEOs. The group will advise the city as it plans ways to expand its technology base.
Tampa -- A.R. Savage & Son opened its international cargo handling facility at the Port of Tampa. The Intermodal Shipping Center, which employs 17, is a full-service ship-to-shore facility, which provides trucking, container storage and handling, ocean freight forwarding and ship agency services.
One of Asia's largest technology firms, Tata Consultancy Services, recently opened an office in Tampa, its 31st in the U.S. The 30-year-old company, based in India, provides IT consulting services to companies in 51 countries. It employs 60 in the Bay area.
The Bradford Group is converting the luxury high-rise apartment complex at 345 Bayshore into condominiums. The New York-based real estate investment firm purchased the 241-unit building in April from SSR Realty Advisors. ZOM Residential Services will continue to manage daily operations.
The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority approved a new lease arrangement with the developers of upscale International Plaza mall, set to open in September. The deal will generate an additional $58 million for the authority. Critics of the original lease, including neighboring WestShore Plaza and the U.S. Department of Transportation, contended that Michigan developer Taubman Co. got a sweetheart deal at 40 cents a square foot.
Tropical Sportswear (Nasdaq-TSIC) is buying Winder, Ga.-based Duck Head Apparel for $20.8 million in cash and assumed debt. Duck Head manufactures men's and boys' apparel under its Duck Head brand. For the quarter ended March 31, Duck Head posted a loss of $564,000 on sales of $10.5 million.
The University of South Florida's Sun Dome basketball arena may soon take on the name of a corporate sponsor. USF is considering a deal that would make it one of only a few colleges in the country with commercial names on campus arenas.