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Port of Pensacola: The Future Ahead

Florida West

In part two of our look at the Port of Pensacola, Director Amy Miller speaks on niche ports; LPV, and World Direct Shipping, among other topics related to the facility.

If the failed attempt to bring Incoa’s calcium carbonate facility to Pensacola had any impact, it appears it opened the door for development of a “niche” port. Director Amy Miller defines the term as picking a lineup of very specific business sectors you want to play in, and you go after them. One example is the America’s Cup Sailing Team, which spent winter at the Port. 

“And that’s right in the neighborhood of 115 people who travel with the team who come here for the entire winter – they live here the entire winter,” Miller said. “They were here from October to June this year. Next year, they’ll be here from October until they leave for the European Sailing season next summer.”

With about 55 acres inside the fence and another 10-15 the port controls outside, Miller says they have to be very deliberate in what they do.

“We’re not like a Houston or a Miami, or an Everglades or a Jacksonville – that can be all things to all people,” said Miller. “What we want to do is pick very specific niches, we want to go after those as hard as we can, and we want to be the best that we can in those business lines.”

But seeking tenants as a niche port does not preclude work to expanding the port’s markets. One example is the Pensacola Bay Oyster Company, which is owned by local businessman Donnie McMahon.

Credit allatsea.net
America's Cup yacht "American Magic," spending the winter at the Port of Pensacola

“And he’s kind of the hub tenant in what we hope will become a growing aquaculture sector here,” said Miller. “[General Electric] continues to use the Port every single day and we expect that to continue to grow. And we’ve got other local shippers that use the Port and we want to make sure it’s always available to them as well.”

What appears to be the Port of Pensacola’s highest-profile work is being done by Offshore Inland Marine – converting a former cargo ship for a role in the next phase of the U.S. Space Program. Blue Origin is tentatively scheduled to begin the missions in 2021 from Cape Canaveral.

“This ship will be out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and the recoverable portion of the rocket will land on the ship – unlike the old days, when they used to crash into the ocean and a Navy ship would go recover them,” said Miller. “Somebody with a joystick is maneuvering those things and they can literally land on a dime,” said Miller.

The rockets will cause some damage to the ship’s landing platform, so she would be returned to the Port of Pensacola for repairs. Miller’s also hoping to get some additional work from that, and other parts of the project.

Credit Blue Origin

“Blue Origin has plans to have one more ship converted; we hope we get that work in the future,” Miller said. The long-term, permanent long-term ongoing business that will come out of this is the repairs in between launches, and the homeporting of the vessel.”

World Direct Shipping – headquartered in Palmetto, Florida – began operations at the port a little more than a year ago – providing direct shipping of containers between Pensacola and Mexico. It operates roughly every other Monday on an “on-demand” basis. Miller says the opportunity is there to grow that business into a weekly, regularly-scheduled service that puts the port in the container business.

“Even a small port can find a niche in the container service if they really are selective and deliberate about the kind of business they go after,” Miller said. “And we had been trying to recruit a small-niche container carrier like World Direct for about ten years. Sometimes that’s just how long it takes to make the business model work.”

With all of the activity going on at the port involving myriad businesses and the materials they handle, Director Amy Miller says they do draw the line in certain instances, with things that just don’t fit with the facility’s geography.

“Any kind of explosives, or dangerous chemicals; you’ll never see a shipment of fish meal; that stuff just stinks to high heaven,” said Miller. “We’re not just ever going to do anything that is going to be in opposition to the quality of life downtown.”

And it’s not just Pensacola, having to weigh the pros and cons of an Incoa, or a World Direct Shipping or a Blue Origin. Ports across the U.S. are seeing residences and businesses building and bumping up against their facilities. And despite their size, ports have to factor in that growth when making business decisions.

“The difference between a port like the Port of New Orleans and a port like Pensacola is -- for us – a question of ‘do we take that business or not?’” said Miller. “For New Orleans that’s so big, it’s ‘is there a terminal that’s far enough removed from a major population source that we can handle that cargo there?’ And that’s just a luxury that we don’t have because of our size.”

The Port of Pensacola could be “a true hybrid of maritime commerce and clean tech,” according to the study by the firm Moffatt and Nichol. But regardless of the changes that are in the offing, the Port’s not going anywhere – adding to its current, 276-year run.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.