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Progress is booming along Ybor Channel

The loud explosions from Ybor Channel are the first steps in creating an industrial park and cruise terminal.

By SUSAN THURSTON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 26, 2002


PALMETTO BEACH -- In the Channel District, it felt like an earthquake.

On Harbour Island, people worried about terrorists.

Even City Council member Charlie Miranda thought he was having some strange kind of "external" stroke.

"I was trembling from the outside in, instead of from the inside out," he said.

Loud blasts at an industrial area across from the Florida Aquarium have caused quite a reaction among people living and working within earshot.

Despite efforts to alert people ahead of time, many didn't know what to think when they heard -- and felt -- the first "kaboom!"

"The whole building shook," said Joseph Banks, who works at the Harbour Island Athletic Club. "We didn't know what it was."

Don't worry, the Tampa Port Authority says. The earth isn't splitting. Terrorists aren't attacking. You're hearing the sound of progress.

In June, the port began dynamiting rock along the Ybor Channel, part of a long-term project to create a 52-acre industrial park and cruise terminal for ferries to Mexico and, one day, Cuba.

To make room for the ferries and other big ships, the authority needs to cut off a chunk of land that juts into the channel and replace the seawall, built in the 1930s. It also has to raise the site's elevation, currently 6 feet below sea level, to protect against flooding.

Before the first big blast, port officials notified businesses, adjoining land owners, law enforcement agencies and the Fire Department to allay potential worries.

In hindsight, it may not have been enough.

After a series of booms, several people called about the commotion, said John Thorington, the port's director of government relations.

Council member Rose Ferlita said many residents on nearby Harbour Island had no idea what happened. Given the heightened alert from Sept. 11, many people are uneasy, she said.

"When you hear a blast that's unidentified or unexplained, it causes some problems," she told port officials at a recent council meeting.

Since then, crews have reduced the intensity of the booms by shrinking the holes and using less blasting powder. The changes created mixed results, Thorington said.

The phone calls stopped, but the work will take longer and cost more.

Port officials expect the dynamiting to end in August. In the meantime, they have expanded their notification list and vow to e-mail affected parties 24 hours in advance of each blast.

They assure the outcome will be worthwhile.

The industrial park, called Port Ybor, will likely generate about 1,100 new jobs and rejuvenate an area of Tampa long neglected and underused, said Port Authority director George Williamson. The Port Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation are investing millions to improve the dock and roads.

The authority, which owns the site at Grant and 20th streets, plans to develop about 12 acres along the water. Developer Trammell Crow, which built the Marriott Waterside Hotel, has dibs on the rest.

Williamson said plans depict a cruise terminal for passenger and car ferries, waterfront cafes and a palm tree-lined boulevard. The site boasts postcard-like views of the sunset, downtown and Harbour Island.

"We're sort of wide open to concepts," he said. "Some of it will be market driven."

On the remaining land, Trammell Crow envisions several large warehouses for importing and exporting goods. The site has access to the water, railroad and Interstates 4 and 75.

Robert Abberger, a principal with Trammell Crow and head of its Tampa office, said the company plans to break ground in November on the first large warehouse. A small office building will follow in 2003.

Abberger wouldn't disclose possible tenants, but said he expects to sign deals soon. He hopes to fill 40 percent of the space by the time phase one of Port Ybor opens next summer.

His office will take some of it.

"I just love it over there," he said. "When I was building the Marriott (across the channel), I would look at the site and say to myself, 'I've got to figure this one out.' "

The site has stood vacant since 1999 when the Tampa Port Authority, which operated out of an old warehouse, moved to Channelside Drive next to the aquarium. During World War II, the Department of Defense built ships there.

- Susan Thurston can be reached at 226-3394 or thurston@sptimes.com.

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