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East County Wednesday, Sep. 11, 2019 2 years ago

Panama visit creates port insight for Manatee County

Commissioner Vanessa Baugh says Port Manatee should be ready for Panamax ships.
by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

When Manatee County District 5 Commissioner Vanessa Baugh had the chance to go to Panama on a mission trip with her church, Osprey First Baptist, she welcomed a little time for business.

Lakewood Ranch's Vanessa Baugh says seeing the Panama Canal was interesting and showed her the importance of being able to attract larger ships to Port Manatee. Courtesy photo.

Baugh and the other 12 people on the trip to Panama City spent a half day Aug. 29 at the Panama Canal. While there, she watched two Panamax ships work their way through the canal.

Panamax ships are specifically designed to travel through the Panama Canal. They are typically up to 965 feet long and can carry up to 1.73 million pounds. They are also among the largest cargo ships in the world.

“I wanted to have a better understanding as to why it’s important for U.S. ports to have a depth of 47 feet for these larger ships,” Baugh said.

For three years, Baugh has served as chairwoman of the Manatee County Port Authority, which owns and operates Manatee County’s port, Port Manatee. Although the Manatee County Port is not owned or operated by county government, it is run by the seven commissioners.

Port Manatee Executive Director Carlos Buqueras said the port is a dependent special district of Manatee County. It takes no tax dollars, and port operations are self-sustaining. The port collects fees from ships that use it, and it also receives federal and state grants for projects, such as dredging. The port is governed by the Manatee County Port Authority, which was

created by the state legislature.

“The purpose of the port is to generate economic activity in jobs and economic outcomes,” Buqueras said.

Manatee County itself receives no money from the port.

Burqueras said 2018 revenues for the port, which is the closest U.S. deepwater seaport to the Panama Canal, were about $14 million. Economic impact is estimated at $2.3 billion annually.

Port Manatee is the closest U.S. deepwater seaport to the Panama Canal, and it supports more than 24,000 jobs.

Baugh said Port Manatee has a depth of 41 feet and could be deepened. However, the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge, which connects St. Petersburg to Terra Ceia in Manatee County, limits the height of ships. Even if Port Manatee was deep enough for Panamax ships, the Skyway Bridge currently is not tall enough to accommodate them.

“Right now, we don’t have the need [to deepen the port]. However, in the future, we will,” Baugh said. “Your smaller ships will probably be replaced with larger ones. We need to remember these Panamax ships are the ships of the future.”

Manatee County commissioners have discussed ways to increase business at Port Manatee by adding roads and other infrastructure. Baugh said there are about 5,000 acres surrounding the port that would be well purposed for industrial uses to complement port activities. 

Baugh said she already plans to visit Panama again next year. During the mission trip Aug. 24-31, she and others taught English classes, visited orphanages and even walked the streets one night to deliver food and drink to the homeless and to sex workers.

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