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Port of Pensacola shares in Florida port resurgence

Port of Pensacola

Cargo handled through Florida seaports was up at least 75% last year, compared to before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Florida Ports Council.

The 2021-2022 Seaport Mission Plan reflects an industry which is rebounding from the pandemic’s impact. Waterborne cargo in Florida jumped from 112 million tons in 2019, to 195 million tons in ‘21.

Ports Council President Michael Rubin says the increase came as people and businesses spent federal stimulus money which put stress on supply chains.

“I think what the supply chain crisis has done for us is raise the idea of how important it is for those infrastructure investments,” Rubin said.

There is optimism at the Port of Pensacola.

“We remain one of Florida’s 15 deep-water ports, and we’re very proud of that; our vessel and cargo activity is up tremendously and we still have room and capacity to grow that even more and to help our existing tenants,” said Clark Merritt, director at the Port of Pensacola.

The local port’s growth, according to the report, is up 13% to more than 250,000 tons of cargo the past year.

“Additionally, our imports were up 49%; because we have more cargo being imported by vessels than we used to in the past, our exports are actually up,” said Merritt. “The [General Electric] vessels that bring in the wind energy components for manufacture, those are coming in from Asia via vessel, whereas they used to be trucked in.”

Parts for windmills at GE Pensacola notwithstanding, Merritt says the port’s main business is bulk materials with CEMEX and Martin-Marietta.

“CEMEX imports bulk cement via vessel from their mines down in Central and South America; that’s our big jump-up in cargo,” Merritt said. “Martin-Marietta as well, is fairly stable; they bring in aggregate from their mines in the Bahamas. And that is used for road-based construction.”

Part of the statewide figures involve cruise ships, to the tune of 8 million passengers last year at six ports: Palm Beach, Miami, Everglades, Canaveral, Tampa Bay and Jacksonville. But Merritt says for now, passenger liners — a very competitive industry — is a bridge too far at the Port of Pensacola.

“We are not a large metropolitan area; you’ll notice that most of the cruise ships that service Florida are in the large metropolitan areas down in south Florida, he said. “Often it takes heavy incentives to entice the cruise industry to take a look at your area. And then it’s about how many passengers can they get on their vessel.”

Merritt says the main objective at his port is to diversify the tenant lineup and cargo operation. Another goal is finishing the cleanup from Hurricane Sally in 2019.

“Sally did quite a number on the port; we are wrapping up many of our FEMA-supported hurricane repair projects to help us with our infrastructure,” he said. “We’ve almost completed the berth repair project — the primary user berths at the port — it’s a new, more robust system.”