On Thursday August 29th Cesar Gomez, Director of Latin Business Development, and I attended the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce’s Port Manatee and SRQ Breakfast. We heard from Carlos Buqueras, Executive Director of the Manatee County Port Authority and Rick Piccolo, President & CEO of the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport.
Big things are happening at two of the area’s largest links to the rest of the country and the world. Port Manatee completed construction of another berth and trade is forecast to grow, leading to impressive job creation. Moreover, the port’s leadership is thinking long-term and planning for the opening of the enlarged Panama Canal and the possibility that the government will further lift travel and trade restrictions with Cuba. Sarasota-Bradenton airport has been able to raise revenues and will soon be paying off their initial construction loan, a laudable feat. Unfortunately however, they have had some trouble attracting international flights, which we will explain below.
As reported by Carlos Buqueras, Port Manatee expects to celebrate a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new berth number 12 in a few months. The port is currently reporting a trade volume of $400m per year and expects that number to increase to $600m next year. Mr. Buqueras reported that every $250,000 of trade that passes through the port creates 1 new job in the area. So at current rates the port has created and sustains 1,600 jobs. At expected future rates the port could create and sustain 2,000 jobs.
Mr. Buqueras and the port leadership are planning for the future. With the Panama Canal enlargement slated to be completed in 2014, Port Manatee is already capable of accomodating the new Panamax super-tankers that will be coming through the canal. In fact, it is the closest deep-water port in the US to the Panama Canal. Mr. Buqueras is in constant communication with officials at the canal and shipping lines that pass through the canal to ensure that Port Manatee and Sarasota and Manatee counties have a prominent place in their minds.
There exists a possibility that the government will further lift travel and trade restrictions with Cuba. To prepare for this eventuality Mr. Buqueras has been in talks with a ferry company that could establish service between Port Manatee and Havana should the opportunity arise. The ferry service would take 10 hours. Travelers could leave port Manatee and be in Havana after a comfortable night’s rest the next morning. This is an exciting possibility.
Rick Piccolo spoke for Sarasota-Bradenton Airport. He discussed the many well-publicized awards the airport has won for being one of the best-run in the country. He also touched on how the airport has increased non-airline-derived revenues from $200k to $1.4m, contributing to the airport’s stability and ability to operate at peak efficiency. The airport’s biggest news is the fact that it expects to have its initial construction loan of $70m, granted in 1984, completely paid off next year.
We asked about issues with bringing international flights to Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport. To date, it has been difficult to attract international airlines to SRQ despite the large number of British, German, and Canadian tourists and immigrants who visit, invest, and live here. Here’s why. At one point the airport did bring in international flights. There were never enough to justify a constant presence of Customs and Border Patrol agents and the officers had to drive down from Tampa whenever an international flight arrived in SRQ. This proved to be rather expensive and the government decided to discontinue the practice. Airport leadership still wishes to attract international flights and hopes to work out a compromise where a certain number of CBP officers could be on call when needed at our airport. Such a scenario would require a change of government policy, however.
Port Manatee seems to be yielding impressive economic dividends for Sarasota and Manatee Counties. It is creating jobs and leading the way in strengthening our international trade connections with other parts of the world. While the airport has done well in paying off its debt and finding new sources of income, we could do more to bring international flights back to our community.