With little space to expand, Port Panama City officials must
plan for every square foot.
With five- and 10-year master plans in the works, the Port
Authority at the small but busy facility is exploring ways to adapt best to the
changing game of world trade as markets evolve, ships get bigger and trade
For Port Director Wayne Stubbs, a well-thought-out plan and
smart investments are the port’s bread and butter.
“It’s important for me and my board … so we’re not always
debating what we’re going to build,” Stubbs said. “We make sure it’s carefully
thought out and researched.”
In the last decade, the port has tripled the amount of cargo
handled annually with the help of $75 million in facilities investments. But
with about 40 percent of the port’s 110 acres occupied by tenants Oceaneering
and Berg Steel Pipe, meeting expansion goals to keep the port sustainable is a
“We’re getting a lot of bang for the buck at this port,”
Stubbs said. “We’re so small we really have to plan, plan, plan for every
A master plan also helps qualify the port for grant funding
through the Florida Department of Transportation and other agencies, which
accounted for about 17 percent of the port’s $13.7 million operating revenue
last year. A majority of FDOT grants require a 50 percent match from the Port
While Port Panama City is one of Florida’s smaller ports, FDOT district
spokesman Ian Satter said it has carved out a niche and is now working to
broaden its ability to handle goods and services by improving its facilities.
“When you look at the Panhandle area, in Panama City for
example, you have a port that brings in 50 percent of the copper that comes in
through the U.S.,” Satter said. “We’re improving these ports so they become
more attractive to people bringing in these goods.”
For Port Panama City, growth is all about building on that
niche for smaller ships carrying valuable cargo.
In the last five years it has seen a 74 percent increase in
cargo value. In 2012, the port handled more than $3 billion worth of waterborne
cargo, ranking in Florida’s top five ports for cargo value.
Currently, the Port of Progreso in Mexico’s Yucatán
Peninsula is one of the Panama City port’s most valuable trading partners, with
ships coming in twice a week carrying a variety of goods. The two facilities
signed a Sister Port agreement in 2008, outlining a commitment to promote shipping
activity along the route.
The port also is one of the country’s biggest importers of
high-value copper, which has emerged as one of its largest and most well-known
But to keep the momentum going and remain sustainable, port
officials are looking beyond what’s working now. Currently, major ports in
Florida and the United States are staring down a lofty challenge to accommodate
bigger ships calling fewer ports as trade from Europe and Asia increases.
“Most of the major ports are having to invest hundreds of
millions of dollars, sometimes up to a billion dollars, to be ready for these
big ships,” said Stubbs, describing a “high stakes” situation on the East
Coast. “They’re all scrambling to do it because none of them want to lose the
However, Stubbs sees Panama City’s future trade partners
much closer to home — through Caribbean transshipment hubs in places such as
Kingston , Jamaica , or Freeport , the Bahamas .
“Nobody really expects these big ships to come into the
Gulf. … There’s not enough cargo for them to just come into the Gulf and back,”
said Stubbs, who added that Panama City instead will seek to attract smaller,
regional ships. “We’re looking for a combination of a regional trader that also
links us to some of those hubs. That’s what our focus is on in terms of
To further enhance funding opportunities for the port, FDOT consultants are
working hand in hand with port consultants to jointly write the master plan,
which will be considered for adoption sometime this fall.
FDOT will contribute about $8 million in grant funding to
the facility this year to support projects to relocate and expand truck
staging, refurbish warehouses, improve rails and aid in a container terminal
expansion project with a $9.5 million price tag.
The project includes several components to help increase
container trade, including a $4.4 million mobile harbor crane and
container-handling equipment, support plugs for refrigerated containers,
expansion of the container yard and relocation of the port’s molasses tank, the
only other option for expanding the container handling area.
“We could double or triple our container trade with the
space we’ve made,” said Stubbs, who added that container trade accounts for
about 30 percent of port activity and allows for a high density and diversity
of goods. “Moving that molasses tank is the only thing we could do for more
A major goal of the port’s current master plan, container
trade expansion efforts likely will be completed in the next planning time
frame, Stubbs said.
FDOT’s 2015 budget also includes a $1 million appropriation,
a 75 percent matching grant, for a $1.3 million project to improve the port’s
west berth so it can support its new, heavier cranes.
Much of the port’s grant funding comes from the FDOT
Strategic Intermodal System program, which prioritizes a network of
transportation systems considered critical to the health of the state’s economy
and future growth. But it also gets grants from the Florida Seaport
Transportation and Economic Development program, which doles out about $15
million to Florida ports annually, and the state Intermodal Logistics Center
program, from which Port Panama City received a $900,000 grant to construct a
new distribution center on U.S. 231 last year.
The state also offers grants through its Strategic Port
Investment Initiative, a $35 million per year minimum offering for port
infrastructure projects across the state.
Overall, Satter outlined $138.9 million in the state budget
this year for seaport infrastructure across Florida.
“These seaports are economic engines for Florida and for the
communities they reside in,” Satter said. “For us, investing in seaports is a
good way to invest in the economy of Florida and invest in these communities.”