Some in Miami-Dade see competition in Panama-to-Panhandle shipping route
By Risa Polansky
Some Miami-Dade commissioners are warily eyeing the Florida Panhandle as competition for international trade.
They last month passed a measure urging the state "to make infrastructure investments in the Port of Miami and other existing large seaports in Florida, rather than provide funding for the substantial expansion of the Port of Panama City in Florida's Panhandle."
Commissioner José "Pepe" Diaz, spearheading the push, said he fears the Panama Canal Authority plans to point cargo through the soon-to-be-expanded Panama Canal straight to the Panhandle, a route that avoids the loop around Cuba that trips to South Florida require — potentially siphoning jobs and money from Miami-Dade.
On a visit to Panama, Mr. Diaz said the canal authority gave a presentation in which "they expressed that they have created a new link that will go straight up to the Panhandle, and that it will be in their opinion more efficient and better, and they're going to make a lot of revenue."
A spokesman for the canal authority did not respond to a request for more information on a Panama City link.
The county's resolution says "proposals have surfaced to make a substantial infrastructure investment in the Port of Panama City, a small seaport in the Florida Panhandle that would compete with the Port of Miami and other existing large Florida seaports not only for cargo and cruise passenger business, but also for state funding."
Wayne Stubbs, executive director of Port Panama City, said the Northwest Florida port does not have a major expansion in store.
The port has been making annual improvements, and "we are looking for opportunities to keep growing," he said, but "nothing very dramatic."
The port has been adding facilities to increase capacity and is in the process of permitting a "marginal extension" of one berth, but there's no room to expand the port's area on site, he said.
The Panama City port's channel is 36 feet deep and already accommodates ships out of Panama, so the port probably won't increase its depth, Mr. Stubbs added.
In the works in Panama is a multi-billion-dollar project set to double the canal's capacity to make way for larger ships.
At the Port of Miami — the closest port in the US to the Panama Canal — officials hope to more than double cargo numbers by dredging the 5.5-mile south channel into the port to 50 feet deep to make way for the new, larger ships for which the canal is preparing.
Though Panama City isn't working on a similar initiative, Mr. Stubbs acknowledged "we would be a good gateway port" and a straight-shot from Panama.
Port of Miami Director Bill Johnson in an e-mail said he does not comment on other ports and their initiatives. "Competition is competition; and there is plenty of it. That's why the POM is continually working to improve: reduce operating costs, enhance service and provide the best facilities to our customers."
He did say, though, that "it's important for this community to understand the importance of its port — the huge impact it has on our economy. It is equally important that we understand the need to improve our facilities, to improve access… to deepen our cargo harbor to 50 feet — these are the things to grow our port and add billions to our economy."
The county's resolution says expanding the Panama City seaport "could simply divert cargo and cruise passenger business from the Port of Miami and other existing large Florida seaports rather than add new business in Florida."
It directs county lobbyists to push for state funding to the local port and asks the county's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs to include the item in its legislative package.
Intergovernmental Affairs Director Joe Rasco said he's seen "no concrete development, but obviously there is a push to develop that port further in the Panama City area and also an airport."
A new Panama City-Bay County International Airport is to open next year a short barge trip away from Port Panama City.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Javier Souto said he fears the area is "going to steal our lunch."
Members of Florida's Great Northwest, an economic development agency representing 16 counties in Northwest Florida, are in Panama on a trade mission now — a partially state-funded trip that has aroused suspicion among some local elected officials.
But the idea isn't to press a specific Panama City to Panama link, said Cristie Kedroski, senior vice president of marketing and operations for Great Northwest.
"We'd like to expand port activity here in Northwest Florida," she said — the whole region, not just in Panama City.
Though the Port of Miami last month renewed a trade partnership with the Panama Canal Authority, the Great Northwest area does not have a "sister" port relationship to date.
"We've got some work ahead of us in terms of expanding our international trade," Ms. Kedroski said.
Grants from state economic development agency Enterprise Florida in part backed the mission, but several areas around the state received similar funding — including $350,000 to Miami-area agencies last summer.
It's also not uncommon for Enterprise Florida to help localities organize trips, said Stuart Doyle, director of communications.
"Many times when organizations plan a trade mission, sometimes we help them with it — we offer support, guidance, since this is what we do on a regular basis," he said.
The offer stands for areas everywhere in Florida.
"We're equal opportunity all around this state. We wouldn't promote one area over the other," Mr. Doyle said.
Mr. Rasco of the county's Office of Intergovernmental Affairs said his department will be monitoring state activity in the Panama City area "so as it competes with funding at our port, we will certainly keep an eye on it and we will make sure funding is equitable based on the position our port has presently in the state."