Miami River potential still untapped, supporters say
By Samantha Joseph
It's been decades since ships could sail the Miami River with full loads of cargo.
The river's shallow level, caused by years of backed-up sediment, means boats can load only to about 70% capacity.
The Miami River Commission and others say dredging is needed to lower the depth to 15 feet to accommodate cargo ships.
But river promoters and administrators say the depth is not the only impediment to business. A general ignorance about the opportunities there for small business has left the river's potential untapped in many ways, they say.
"The river's underrated," said Fran Bohnsack, executive director of trade association Miami River Marine Group.
Several organizations with an interest in boosting trade and development along the river have organized the Miami River Marine Industries Symposium for next month. The Miami River Commission, a public group that oversees policy and projects for the river, is working with the Beacon Council, the county's economic development group, to host the conference.
A horde of sponsors - including the US Maritime Administration, the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, the Governor's Office of Tourism and the Office of Trade and Economic Development - have joined the effort.
"It doesn't look like what people think a port should look like, but the river is a significant port," Ms. Bohnsack said.
Promoters say Miami River is the fourth-busiest port in Florida, handling more than $4.1 billion in trade annually, and is well-placed to aid Miami's bid to gain the headquarters of the Free Trade Area of the Americas.
"Even in its current condition, it is an economic engine," said Brett Bibeau, managing director of the Miami River Commission.
The river is Florida's only shallow draft port, which can accommodate smaller ships that can't dock at deep-water competitors such as the Port of Miami. Mr. Bibeau said most of the neighboring 100-plus Caribbean ports are also shallow.
"Without this shallow draft port, the majority of Caribbean ports couldn't trade with Miami," he said.
The point is especially important in light of Miami's efforts to become the center of trade in the hemisphere by hosting the FTAA secretariat.
Organizers have invited representatives of the Caribbean Shipping Association to attend the upcoming conference to meet with local operators and agents about business ventures.
Already, Mr. Bibeau said, the port provides a vital link between Miami and Haiti. The Caribbean island is the world's most impoverished country, he said, and its residents depend heavily on basic supplies from Miami.
"If it wasn't for those shipments, Haiti would be in even more dire straits than it currently is. That kind of trade ... is not possible through the Port of Miami," he said. "It's critically important to international stability in the Caribbean basin to ensure that trade continues to flow through the Miami River and the 100 shallow draft ports which it services."
While the river's depth is sometimes its selling point, its shallow waters have proven detrimental to trade. About 1 million tons of sediment has collected on its floor in the past several decades, slashing the river's depth in half to about seven feet in some places and restricting ships. The last major work on the river was done in the 1930s, Mr. Bibeau said earlier this year.
"Currently, they cannot load to full capacity even if they wanted to," he said.
Dredging scheduled to start this fall would help solve that by increasing the river's depth and making trade more efficient. With full loads, ships could carry more goods, earn higher revenue and presumably hire more workers.
An urban infill plan has divided the 5-mile river, which runs from Biscayne Bay to Miami International Airport.
River officials and planners divide river neighborhoods into three geographic areas. Each division has designated uses to separate the river's industrial, residential and retail functions.
The lower river, which flows from Biscayne Bay through downtown Miami to the Fifth Street bridge, would feature mixed-use residential projects along with public river walks and walkways to connect retail projects to the main footpaths.
The river's midsection, from Fifth Street to 22nd Avenue, allows for boatyards, parks and projects that support the Civic Center area, which provides about 30,000 jobs.
The area west of 22nd Avenue is to remain the heart of the marine industry.
"We're not advocating for shipping terminals along every square inch of the river and shipping terminals in the middle of downtown Miami," Mr. Bibeau said.
The message at the Sept. 27 conference will be that the river allows for varied opportunities. Developers have started to notice. About 16 residential projects are under way on the river - a major turnaround from the last two decades, when no one built homes on the river.
But still missing, promoters suggest, are small businesses that could benefit from a host of incentives.
The river is an enterprise zone, in which new and growing companies can qualify for tax exemptions, fee waivers on public services, construction material and equipment for their business' growth.
"And those are only some of the incentives available under one of the programs," Mr. Bibeau said. "On Sept. 27, we will focus on attracting new and expanding businesses to the appropriate parts of the river."
The one-day symposium is set for Hyatt Regency, 400 SE Second Ave., downtown. Registration closes Sept. 17.
Details: (305) 361-4850.