PORT MANATEE — Berth 9 just got bigger, better and a little bit deeper.
On Thursday, Port Manatee’s governing board held a ceremony to celebrate a $10.3 million reconstruction.
The project took 18 months to complete and created 250 construction-related jobs. Three-quarters of the funding came from a Florida Department of Transportation grant. The remainder was provided by the Manatee County Port Authority, which consists of county commissioners.
In the process, the 40-year-old berth was completely rebuilt to improve safety standards and accommodate larger cargo ships. The berth is now 40 feet deep and can handle uniform loads of up to 1,000 pounds per square foot.
Port Manatee executive director Carlos Buqueras compared the renovation to a longer runway that can handle larger planes.
Vanessa Baugh, chairwoman of the Manatee County Port Authority, said “anytime we can improve our infrastructure or our services here at the port, it’s a great plus. All the ships that come in, we don’t want to put them in harm’s way of being damaged, so it makes us more competitive with other ports in the state of Florida.”
There are 15 deepwater ports in Florida, but Port Manatee is the closest to the Panama Canal, giving it a leg up for businesses that wish to ship products from the Pacific Ocean.
Port Manatee also is the closest port to the Port of Mariel in Havana.
But the potential for more trade with Cuba remains murky. In Miami on Thursday, President Donald Trump was expected to announce a dramatic rollback of former President Barack Obama’s more open relations with Cuba, though details reportedly have not been finalized.
Baugh said that she’s willing to work with Cuba, should the opportunity arise.
“The bottom line is we’re a business,” Baugh said. “So, if the trade opened up, we would’ve been first in line to work with Cuba. However, there are obviously things to take into consideration right now. We don’t know what’s going to be happening in Washington.”
If open trade does happen, it won’t be the port that decides to do business with Cuba.
“We don’t trade with Cuba, our customers trade with Cuba,” Buqueras said. “So we’re just like an airport — we don’t own the planes, we don’t own the passengers, we don’t own the cargo. The cargo is private to private.”
But the port doesn’t need Cuban trade to remain relevant. Some studies have shown the port has a $2.3 billion annual impact on the area, with more than 24,000 jobs stemming from its operations.
“The port, if you think about it, is a lifeline. That’s where a lot of business comes in — a lot of the things that Manatee County and the surrounding counties need to grow and sustain themselves,” Baugh said.
Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, who helped negotiate money for the reconstruction project, reiterated the importance of Port Manatee.
“We have the lowest unemployment numbers since 2007, and that’s in large part due to our friends at the port,” Boyd said. “We think it’s the best port in the state of Florida and probably in the Southeast and maybe even beyond.”
Buqueras said continued growth in the state’s population and economy should continue to fuel Port Manatee’s growth and the nearby Port of Tampa.
“Tampa and us will still have a hard time even accommodating the business that’s coming.”