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."
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