tampabay.com

Port to part with operator, try again

Tampa port officials, who had hoped SSA Marine would be a big boost for the port's container business, will consider P&O Ports.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published January 14, 2006


TAMPA - The Tampa Port Authority wants to break ties with its cargo terminal operator and bring in a competitor committed to expanding the port's fledgling container business.

Port officials had criticized SSA Marine for failing to recruit new container shipping lines as the company's executives had pledged when they won a contract in 2003 to move cargo at the public agency's docks.

SSA agreed in principle Thursday to terminate the 10-year contract. That opens the door for the port authority to sign a deal with P&O Ports, one of the world's largest container terminal operators.

P&O could take over handling containers and "break-bulk" cargo, such as steel and lumber, within two months, said port director Richard Wainio.

The company has offered to buy three huge container cranes from the agency for $5-million, take over their maintenance and split the cost of future container terminal expansions, he said.

"They share our vision, share the risk and have an incentive to grow the business," Wainio said.

The port authority has spent more than $40-million on container facilities, including a container ship berth, storage areas and the three gantry cranes.

Although volumes of the steel boxes - measured in 20-foot container "equivalents" - has increased from 8,000 to nearly 27,000 in the past three years, Tampa is a small player in the container business, even in Florida.

In 2004, Miami handled more than 1-million 20-foot equivalents, followed by Jacksonville (728,000), Fort Lauderdale (654,000) and Palm Beach (226,000).

Big ports have been in the container business for 20 years or more, and shipping companies are wary about bringing ships into new ports without established markets, said Dick Grenville, general manager for SSA Marine in Tampa.

"You don't play catchup overnight," he said.

The port authority board will vote on the terminal operator change at its Tuesday meeting.

Members also will consider giving the developer of a proposed high-tech conference center and hotel-condo tower at the port a one-year extension until March 2007 for breaking ground on the project.

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