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Steady hand takes the helm

New Tampa port director Richard Wainio must deal with a nest of thorny issues.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published March 7, 2005


[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
The proximity of maritime industry to entertainment and cruise interests in the Port of Tampa district poses challenges for arriving port director Richard Wainio, right. One immediate problem is development pressure tending to squeeze traditional industry.

TAMPA - Some of his most important customers have rolled out the red carpet for Richard Wainio as he arrives in the hot seat of Tampa port director today.

Traditional port businesses like his shipping industry experience. International trade boosters cite his understanding of Latin America and fluency in Spanish. Port commissioners and tenants call him a straight-talker and a good listener.

Ports are hotbeds of politics and competing interests, though, and Wainio inherits a full plate of knotty issues as Tampa's first full-time port director in a year. How long will the honeymoon last?

"About as long as it takes to make a few key decisions," he says. "There are always winners and losers. But the bottom line is ... people can walk out saying they don't like it (as long as) they understand the reason for the port doing it."

Gritty industrial businesses feel pressured by entertainment and residential developers. They want the Tampa Port Authority to protect limited deep-water berths essential for their survival.

Cargo operators and cruise ships coexist uneasily. One conflict: Harbor pilots won't take the Carnival Miracle to its terminal if a petroleum vessel is unloading in the narrow shipping channel leading to downtown, causing heartburn at the world's largest cruise line.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Port Authority's chairman is calling for a reorganization of the agency's staff and the port's fledgling container business needs a jump-start.

Port commissioners traditionally picked only men with experience at the port authority or other local ties. Wainio is new to Tampa, but he says that will help convince people he doesn't have any hidden agenda.

"I'm coming in with no relationship to Tampa or anyone here," he says. "I come with a blank slate."

Wainio has just two years under his belt running a port, and a small one at that. The Port of Palm Beach has a strong container cargo trade but is otherwise much smaller than Tampa in size and scope.

He does bring nearly 30 years of experience in international business. In Panama, Wainio directed operations for a 15-vessel shipping company and helped run the largest container cargo transfer terminal in Latin America. Most of his career was spent working for the agency that ran the Panama Canal until the United States turned it over to Panama in 1999.

His grandfather went to Panama as an engineer on a dredge digging the canal in 1913. His father got a job there after World War II and retired as chief of customs and immigration for the Panama Canal Zone.

Wainio was born and grew up in the canal zone, about 550 square miles under U.S. control. He was among thousands of U.S. citizens who lived in U.S. government housing, attended government-run schools and played in gyms and pools at American military bases.

After graduating from college in the United States, Wainio returned home to work for the Panama Canal Commission as an economist.

He rose to a top-level post in 1990, with responsibility for planning and directing the transfer of the canal to Panama and representing the canal agency with maritime industry chief executives and top government officials worldwide.

With the canal commission's time winding down, Wainio began applying for port director positions in the United States. He was the second choice at ports in Los Angeles, Miami, Fort Lauderdale and New Orleans, he said.

In 2002, Wainio interviewed for executive director at the Port of Palm Beach. Though he had been a senior executive at the canal commission, with nearly 10,000 employees and a $720-million annual budget, it wasn't a slam dunk.

Port commissioners fretted that he hadn't run a port and lacked connections in Tallahassee, but ended up giving him the job.

Wainio hit some rough spots early on. During a board meeting, he clashed with a commissioner who wanted to let a youth dance group practice in a plaza on port property, then accused him of lying.

"He came from such a big organization to a port with 40 employees," said Blair Ciklin, the port's chairman. "It was a cultural shock for him to deal with things like that."

Wainio mended fences and presided over one of port's most stable periods, said Lori Baer, the deputy director who succeeded him when he retired last August. "He was very methodical," she said. "He taught me to be smart, think it through, don't just fire off that letter."

"Someone who could listen'

In January, Wainio made the final cut of three finalists for Tampa port director. They gave presentations and chit-chatted at a reception with port business executives at the Tampa Club the night before port commissioners made their choice.

"He seemed like someone who could listen to our points and give an honest evaluation," said Joe Hartley, chief executive of Tampa Bay Shipbuilding & Repair Co. and president of the Port of Tampa Maritime Industries Association.

That was a hot button. Port businesses complained in recent years that port authority officials made too many decisions behind closed doors without their input.

Port director George Williamson abruptly left for a private sector job in West Palm Beach a year ago. His deputy, Zelko Kirincich, stepped down as interim director after tenants criticized the agency for moving too slowly and not dealing straight with them.

The port commissioners brought in an outsider. Retired GTE executive Bill Starkey agreed to work without pay and leave when commissioners found a full-time director. Port business leaders found him accessible, honest and relaxed. Many saw the same qualities in Wainio.

"He was closest (of the finalists) to Bill Starkey," said Gene Masters, president of the local Propeller Club, an association of port-related businesses. "He was a little more laid-back, more focused on getting people together and coming to agreement."

Wainio won't have to wait long to put those skills to work. After a week packed with staff meetings, he will take a proposal to the port board on March 15 to spend $15-million for 41 acres of waterfront property for industrial expansion.

Traditional port industries like the deal. But they want the agency to prevent developers from buying up other valuable waterfront for condos, retail businesses or other uses that push out industrial businesses, such as shipyards.

Just north of the port authority's headquarters, a Longboat Key resort owner wants to build a high-tech conference center and hotel. That would require filling in a deep-water slip the agency leases to International Ship Repair & Marine Services.

The port authority should establish a buffer of land along deep water for industry, especially around downtown as the Channel District grows, says Arthur Savage of A.R. Savage & Son, the port's largest ship agent.

"If you control the (land on) deep water, you have options," he says. "When you start giving away land like that, it's dangerous. They don't make 34-foot (deep) water anymore."

A more immediate concern for Wainio is the conflict over the port's largest cruise ship, the Carnival Miracle .

Harbor pilots say they can't safely move the 960-foot-long ship through a narrow, bending stretch of channel beside Harbour Island if a vessel is docked at the Citgo Petroleum terminal or if winds exceed 25 knots, as measured at the Sunshine Skyway.

Citgo initially agreed to keep vessels away when the Miracle sails to Tampa. But the company needed to fill its tanks one Sunday in January.

Instead of going to its regular terminal in the Channel District, the cruise ship was diverted to a cargo dock in an industrial area of the port. Buses carried about 4,500 passengers between the dock at Hooker's Point and the cruise terminal.

"Neither the port nor Carnival wants that uncertainty," Wainio said. He expects to talk soon with pilots about a short-term solution. The port authority eventually may need to build a new cruise terminal along East Bay for bigger cruise ships, he said.

Other issues on Wainio's radar screen include:

-- A reorganization of the agency's staff requested by port chairman Gladstone "Tony" Cooper, who says the agency needs to put more emphasis on its primary task of managing real estate. "This doesn't mean heads will roll or people will get fired," Wainio says.

-- Pumping up the port's container cargo trade. The agency needs to persuade its only global container shipper, Zim-American Israeli Shipping, to expand its weekly calls or attract another shipper. The port authority's recent purchase of three container cranes "signals Tampa is deadly serious" about the business, Wainio says.

-- Steve Huettel can be reached at 813 226-3384 or huettel@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 7, 2005, 07:15:03]


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