Port Royal executives and project engineers listen intently to
Manatee County Commissioners as they make a critical decision
on port access for their project.
BRADENTON -- For months now, two of the best-kept secrets in county government have been the unseen site plans and planning staff reviews of "Project Royal" and "Project Palm" at the Port Manatee Encouragement Zone. That's an area east of the Port where port-related businesses are expected to locate as it grows with the expansion of the Panama Canal.
On Thursday, a little bit about that mystery projects slipped out when Project Royal got revealed as a major occupant for the Encouragement Zone that will make a long-term, billion-dollar investment there and create at least 2,400 permanent new jobs. It's also planning 400 hires in the short term, and 500 during construction, which is expected to cost more than $15 million dollars at the start and $1 billion over time.
Project Palm, sources told The Bradenton Times, is an entertainment-related project comparable to Disney On Ice, and would be a second enormous job-creator here. A majority of commissioners and even the port's director say they have no idea what it is; none have negotiated with the developers. The most any commissioner would say is, "It's a big company."
Shrouded in secrecy under confidentiality provisions of the Sunshine Act, Project Royal was revealed at the Land Use Committee meeting of the commissioners as a "major, major link" by rail to the top markets for fresh and flash-frozen foods in eastern American states.
Both companies are taking advantage of the present dredging of Port Manatee, which will dramatically improve its accessibility to container ships as it is becomes the closest deepwater port to the Panama Canal -- itself undergoing a $700 million dredging and expansion of its own to accommodate the huge ships.
Largely due to that proximity and the high cost of fuel, Port Manatee could soon become a major boon and economic engine for the local and state economy. It is one of the state's 17 ports, but it has found favor with the state's otherwise tight-fisted governor as a new generator of tax revenues and jobs. Millions of dollars have been approved by Gov. Rick Scott for digging a 41 ft. deepwater channel and improvement to a 1,200 foot berth that will be deep and long enough for virtually any cargo ship.
But the revelation that Port Royal could produce so much largess obviously impressed the commissioners. "This is a major, major link," project Royal attorney Carol McGuire told commissioners.
Commissioner Joe McClash sat back and beamed as O'Malley and a project engineer and others, including the owner of the 476,000-sq. ft. Port Manatee Commerce Center, Stanley Riggs, extolled the concept. As a former chairman of the Port Authority and the board's longest-serving member, McClash was responsible for leading the commission to create the Encouragement Zone that bore its first fresh fruit Thursday.
Under the partnership between CSX and Green Express outlined by Bob O'Malley, the CSX resident VP for Florida, foods shipped from Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and points south or via the Panama Canal to the Port Manatee hub would be carried by truck to the rail hub across US 41 and stored briefly in a planned 66,600-sq.ft. refrigerated facility in the Encouragement Zone. Green Express, via CSX, would provuide Class 1 direct connectivity to a dedicated rail hub in Kingsbury, Ind., a southeast Chicago suburb that serves the "consumption zones" of Chicago and New York.
"This is huge - huge - for Manatee County," said McGuire, representing Providence Logistics and Joe Mikes, owner of 733 acres of the proposed rail hub site to be called Logistics Port Manatee, or LPM.
O'Malley, along with project engineers and developers, told members of the Board that Manatee County has been selected as the hub for its mile-long Green Express trains that will eventually will need two miles of track to fill the trains arriving at the Port or from internal counties and send it north.
O'Malley told The Bradenton Times the Encouragement Zone track would likely be in a loop, rather than a straight line.
The reason the project got revealed Thursday afternoon was that the board of commissioners on May 24 adopted a motion that nixed any extension of South Dock Street, an artery into the port from US 41, in order to accommodate Project Palm.
The Project Palm developers had made it known to county planners that their project would be "dead" if a road was permitted to go from South Dock St., probably at grade, across US 41 into the Encouragement Zone .
After they put the issue to County Administrator Ed Hunzeker, who told them that the best course would be to "create a level playing field" for all clients of the Port who need access to the Encouragement Zone, they agreed. The commissioners' May 24 motion exempting South Dock St. as a possible extension of what O'Malley called "a public cargo road" into the Encouragement Zone created a bias toward Project Palm, Hunzeker said. So, in a fresh start on the issue, the commissioners voted unanimously to rescind the previous motion and then to expand a staff study "to look at all options" for an Encouragement Zone access road.
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