A port in a storm: cling tightly to PortMiami’s vital land
Written by Michael Lewis on January 26, 2016
Mayor Carlos Gimenez injected reason into hot debate over the southwest corner of PortMiami by recommending that commissioners sink any plans to develop the site until the port figures out its future needs and those of its users.
The mostly-bare 36 acres have been a magnet for proposers of unsolicited projects ranging from a soccer stadium to a mixed-use convention site, hotel, shops, restaurants and yacht marina. Each proposal comes with commission advocates attached.
The mayor’s call to put an anchor on development underscores several vital factors.
First, as he noted in talking with Miami Today, the port may be about to undergo a sea change when the enlarged Panama Canal belatedly opens.
The county has spent heavily to dredge the port’s channel deeper to handle larger ships that the canal can soon serve, and the port is already welcoming larger freighters with heavier loads than it could before.
How much more freight will come is a mystery. Until the Panama Canal piñata breaks opened, who knows what we’ll get and what added facilities the port might need to maximize the business?
Frankly, we may be betting too heavily on the Panama Canal as a bonanza for Miami business and for sea trade in general. The powerful engine of China’s economy is slowing its growth – though make no mistake: it is still growing.
But we have placed our bets, buying massive gantry cranes from China for the port to handle the larger loads we expect, building new port tunnels for trucks and dredging the main channel deeper. Our money is on the table already.
Just before the canal actually opens is no time to say that the strategy has failed and to flail instead for other avenues of port use. Give our strategy a chance to win.
A second factor in the mayor’s go-slow policy is that the port now is doing well economically.
When the county five years ago planned port uses, including the now-fallow land, it was struggling to pay debts. But between 2010 and 2013 port revenue soared 31% while costs rose far more slowly, and today the port is in the chips. No need to rock the boat to net money from non-essential uses.
A third element is also in play: the county got the port land from the City of Miami with the provision that if the land isn’t used for port purposes the city gets it back.
City and county attorneys have met on what uses qualify and haven’t found common ground. The county shouldn’t be looking to test the issue in court unless absolutely necessary, and several proposed uses of the 36 acres would mire the county in legal quicksand. No need.
Fourth, the impact of vital needs of port users could far outweigh projects that outsiders seek on the 36 acres. Is rail space adequate for cargo? How about storage areas? Some cruise lines already seek docks we now don’t have, and larger new cruise ships might bring even more opportunities. Could the vacant port land house present offices and storage to open the port’s deep-water areas for cruise and cargo expansions?
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa in October brought a vote to survey port users on their future needs before committing the vacant land, but her measure narrowly failed. Mayor Gimenez is right: wait until needs are clearer.
A fifth element is Cuba. Some observers tie ferries to Cuba to use of the port land. That brings into play the foreign policy of a county that usually does everything possible to insulate us from the brothers Castro. Under the US Constitution foreign policy belongs to Washington, but any structure on the port that could link to Cuba is controversial – though airport planes fly regularly to Havana.
Mention of Cuba muddies the waters for rational port decision-making.
For all these reasons, Mayor Gimenez is wise to seek a go-very-slow policy.
But the final call is the county commission’s. Several commissioners want to go ahead and give the land to one firm or another to do one project or another regardless of the best use of public land for port purposes.
Hard as we try, though, we can’t find a single good reason to turn to outside developers today. As we suggested in October about the position the mayor has now taken, figure out what we need before the county gets rid of the land.
In talking of port leases Commissioner Xavier Suarez has also made the point well: once port land is gone, it’s gone. If we make the wrong choice about future port needs we don’t get to take it back and try again.
Until needs are clearer, cling tightly to that potentially vital corner.