Around the State- Northwest- March 2001
Once a burden to taxpayers, Pensacola's port has become the centerpiece of waterfront redevelopment.
By Julie S. Bettinger
Less than four years ago, the Port of Pensacola was mired in debt and losing money fast. Only one kind of cargo -- bagged goods such as grain, rice and meal -- moved through the port. And when the federal government eliminated a subsidy program for Third World countries that accounted for many of those shipments, the port went downhill even faster. The facility looked as bad as it performed. While the port is in the heart of the city and adjacent to the historic district, it was an eyesore that developers weren't including in their plans to revitalize downtown.
In 1997, public criticism prompted City Council members to try to improve the facility. Their most important decision: Hiring then-airport director Chuck Porter to oversee operations. Porter saved the city $1.2 million annually by outsourcing the work of 50 full-time longshoremen who loaded and unloaded vessels. He also began soliciting other types of business, and soon the port was handling everything from frozen foods to asphalt. Within a year, it was turning a profit.
By pooling funds with the city's Community Redevelopment Agency, the port has been able to fund $7.9 million in projects to improve its appearance and make the waterfront more people-friendly. Part of the work included upgrading administrative offices and trucking and warehouse facilities. Money also will go to build a bulkhead and dredge along public-accessible parts of the waterfront so that the port can accommodate non-cargo vessels, from "tall ships" to cruise liners. Another project: A 237-space parking lot, green space and wide sidewalks designed to accommodate a farmer's market.
Because it occupies 50 of the city's 110 acres on the waterfront, redeveloping downtown without the port would have been difficult, says Jennifer Fleming, executive director of the CRA. Instead, the port's revitalization is working to the city's advantage. "The renaissance of our downtown is a pretty good example of having working waterfront activities as well as redevelopment," she says.
The port's turnaround has helped the CRA secure $12 million in mixed-use development downtown, including a 92-slip marina, upscale condominiums and office buildings.
The city continues to pay $839,300 in debt service for the port each year. But with an annual operating profit of about $600,000, Porter says he's confident the port will be able to sustain itself by 2004. A native of the area, Porter says the port-related projects are as much about preserving history as they are about making a city department profitable. "The port has been operating in some capacity dating back to the 1700s," he says. "To have a natural deepwater port and not use it would have been a disappointment."
In the News
Bay County -- A stepped-up advertising campaign is credited with helping Bay County achieve a 4% increase in gross revenues and bed taxes in fiscal year 1999-2000. Visitor-guide requests were up more than 11%, and website visits nearly doubled.
Foley -- Recent tests by the Environmental Protection Agency have uncovered dioxin at the Buckeye Florida plant near Perry. The findings could affect the state's proposal to pipe waste 17 miles from the plant to the Gulf of Mexico.
Marianna -- Sykes Enterprises is now up and running with employees recruited and trained by Chipola Junior College. The company, which provides support services for an internet service provider, will be adding about 50 workers a week until it reaches an estimated 400 at full capacity.
Milton -- A 10,000-sq.-ft. building that will house the Truck Driver Institute is under construction on a 10-acre site in the Santa Rosa County Industrial Park. The institute is scheduled to open in June, initially employing 40, with a potential of adding another 35 jobs.
Niceville -- Okaloosa-Walton Community College's charter school, called the OWCC Collegiate High School, has received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which means its high school diploma will now be accepted by colleges and universities nationwide.
Panama City -- Berg Steel Pipe Corp. is one of three U.S. steel line pipe producers that filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Commerce and U.S. International Trade Commission. The companies allege that Japan and Mexico are flooding the U.S. with imports below market prices, giving the importers an unfair advantage.
Berg Steel says the resulting reduction in sales at its Port Panama City facility required it to cut employment by 50%.
Pensacola -- Network Telephone Corp. recently closed on a $140-million line of credit that was secured by Lucent Technologies and Lehman Bros. The money will be used by the communications company to refinance existing debt and to purchase equipment.
The USS Iwo Jima, an aircraft landing
ship, will be commissioned in Pensacola on June 30.
Executives at GE Power Systems say they expect to be operating in the former Westinghouse production facility by June. GE purchased the facility for $17.7 million and is expected to create 200 jobs building generator components.
Port St. Joe -- The final chapter on the former St. Joe Co. paper mill is about to close. Officials are soliciting bids to demolish all but four large warehouses at the plant. The facility's current owners, Smurfit-Stone, are mum on plans for the property.
Economic development officials are eyeing the closed port as a potential economic engine. Plans are under way to acquire land on the turn basin and establish public deepwater port facilities. Port Authority members are also proposing additional facility improvements and targeting potential port customers.
Tallahassee -- LearnSomething.com, a developer of web-based continuing education programs, has formed a partnership with Experient Technologies to make distance learning accessible via hand-held devices and other wireless technology.
Florida A&M: No. 1 in Recruiting
TALLAHASSEE -- Florida A&M University has tied Harvard in the No. 1 spot for recruiting the most National Achievement Scholars. FAMU has held a perennial position in the top three for recruitment of the nation's top black high school students.