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Tampa port delays switch in shipbuilding ownership

The board questions an Alabama company's plan to take a majority stake in Tampa Bay Shipbuilding & Repair.

By STEVE HUETTEL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 27, 2001


TAMPA -- The owner of an Alabama shipyard is preparing to take control of Tampa's largest shipyard, and port officials are worried the change might mean fewer jobs at the local yard.

The port's governing board Thursday put off approving a deal that would give majority ownership of Tampa Bay Shipbuilding & Repair Co. to Tom Bender Jr., who owns Bender Shipbuilding & Repair Co. in Mobile, Ala.

Bender formed a 50-50 partnership in 1997 with Aaron Hendry, owner of Gulf Marine Repair Corp. in Tampa, to buy the yard and assume its lease with the port. Now, Bender wants to purchase 1 percent of Hendry's stake.

But under the lease, any change in ownership must have the port board's blessing. And members weren't ready to give it until Bender told them the change wouldn't mean fewer ship-repair contracts -- and jobs -- for the Tampa yard.

"We know they will have two facilities," board chairman Fassil Gabremariam said. "Which one will benefit in terms of jobs and revenue? Whenever Mobile benefits, we won't."

The shipyard is among the port's biggest employers with as many as 500 workers, depending on the number of ship repair and new construction contracts at any given time, port officials say.

Tampa Bay Shipbuilding is also the port's largest tenant, paying $1-million in rent annually and more than $2-million a year in bond payments that financed a dry dock expansion in the 1970s.

But the company hasn't attracted nearly as much work as port officials expected, port director George Williamson said.

The 4-year-old lease set a minimum rent of $1-million a year but could make more for the port if the repair revenues exceeded $40-million a year.

That hasn't happened. Revenues were $18.3-million for the year ended in February, port officials said, and topped out at $37.7-million from March 1998 to February 1999.

Under the lease, the minimum payment drops to $500,000 annually next year. County Commissioner Pat Frank suggested renegotiating the lease to gradually reduce the minimum rent over several years.

Bruce Croushore, Bender Shipbuilding's general counsel, said that wasn't acceptable.

"To change the lease based on a 1 percent change in ownership strikes me as extraordinary," he said.

The 50-50 ownership led to staffers performing some of the same work in Tampa and Mobile, Croushore said. A huge barge owned by Maritrans will arrive next month to be double-hulled, he said, the third such contract for the local yard.

"It's a tough business to project year to year," Croushore said. "But the facility is excellent, world-class for repair."

Board members asked Croushore to give them a plan next month showing how much business Bender expects the Tampa yard will perform after the ownership change.

In other business, the board approved two six-month lease options for BP Energy Co. on 60 acres at the south end of Hooker's Point. The company is considering building a liquefied natural gas terminal at the site.

Also, board members approved a deal for StarShip Cruise Line of Biloxi, Miss., to sail a dining cruise vessel to the port.

The company operates a ship that carries 600 people for parties or seats 350 for meals for twice-daily cruises from Biloxi, StarShip president Troy Manthey said.

A market study estimated StarShip would attract nearly 73,000 passengers a year sailing from a berth near the Florida Aquarium. Most of the business will be corporate or convention parties, Manthey said, but cruises also will be open to the public.

The port will spend $170,000 to create a berth east of the Shops at Channelside by February. But StarShip might bring a ship as early as this fall if it can temporarily use existing docks, Manthey said.

- Steve Huettel can be reached at (813) 226-3384.

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