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Urgency mounts for port redevelopment plans

Mark Parker

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The College of Marine Science as seen from the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub, which temporarily houses the Florida Hub while USF officials wait to secure EOS funding. Photo by Mark Parker.

St. Petersburg’s marine economy is booming; however, a lack of waterfront space could cause some key contributors to leave the area.

At a committee meeting Thursday, city council members urged administrators to establish redevelopment plans for Port St. Pete. The dormant facility’s sole, aging building currently houses the University of South Florida St. Petersburg’s nursing program.

Local leaders began taking a long-overdue look at the Port’s trajectory in January 2023. While multiple stakeholders have floated the idea of building a second Maritime and Defense Technology Hub at the site, those plans have yet to set sail.

“The port is empty from an operational point of view,” said Councilmember Ed Montanari. “The fact that we’re running out of space is a very good position to be in, and it gives us an opportunity to expand and grow this vital resource within our city.”

Private yachts occasionally dock at Port St. Pete.

Port St. Pete’s proximity to myriad public and private research organizations compensates for its lack of commercial and cargo ship traffic. The four-acre, city-owned site sits between USFSP’s College of Marine Science and the Innovation District’s Hub.

Brian Caper, director of economic development, said administrators discussed the Port’s future with District officials throughout 2023. He said conversations centered on creating a sister facility for the Hub.

However, construction funding remains an issue. Caper said the public-private partners hope to identify an anchor tenant for the new building as they work on a District master plan.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s (NOAA) name continues bubbling to the surface. Caper said discussions with the organization “starts in fits, but nothing has been decided.”

He said administrators would seek project feedback from District stakeholders that call the roughly one-square-mile District home. Caper said it would be another year before they complete a master plan – the area’s first since 1999.

“As it stands right now, NOAA is very interested in being a part of this project,” said Councilmember Gina Driscoll. “When you have your feet on the ground here in St. Pete, and in that area, you can see why we are a true destination for marine science.

“We have the largest concentration of marine science assets in the Southeastern U.S. That’s something to be proud of, and we want to build on that.”

The Cross Bay Ferry is temporarily docking at Port St. Pete. A U.S. Coast Guard cutter anchors in the background.

Driscoll explained that NOAA was once at the center of Port redevelopment plans. However, she said the city’s proposal was dead in the water.

Dr. Rick Spinrad, undersecretary of commerce for NOAA, then attended the Hub’s grand opening in March 2022. Driscoll noted Spinrad came away impressed.

“The connective tissue, the cohesiveness and the potential for extraordinary impact are like nothing I have ever seen before,” Spinrad said at the time. “I can’t say that strongly enough.”

NOAA’s lease at privately owned Bayboro Station expires in 2027. Driscoll believes lower rent prices at a new Port facility could ensure the office remains in St. Petersburg.

While the Florida Ports Council dedicated $8 million to the project, she said the funding requires a local match. State and federal stakeholders also want to see movement.

“You know, creating the vision and the general idea of what we want to do there and being able to put that into visuals that we can show them …,” Driscoll said.

In addition, Driscoll noted that Hub anchor tenant Saildrone needs space to expand. NOAA utilizes Saildrone’s uncrewed surface vessels to monitor hurricanes and collect marine data.

Saildrone launched this uncrewed surface vessel from the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. The company needs additional waterfront space for larger vehicles.

While St. Petersburg is home to the company’s “Rapid Deployment Drones,” it lacks the waterfront space needed to house larger vehicles, like those deployed by the U.S. Navy.

Driscoll wants to ensure a “local employer with international reach” continues operating from St. Pete. She believes Port redevelopment renderings would create that pathway.

Driscoll urged administrators to identify $250,000 in seed funding for an initial planning phase before the Port Council disburses matching grants in the summer. Montanari noted that USFSP would soon break ground on its Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences (EOS) Research and Teaching facility.

He added that with the adjacent Hub and Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg, “we have all the ingredients to cook a very good meal in our Port.” Montanari called the $250,000 request “very reasonable” and agreed that city officials should begin conceptual planning before the master plan is complete.

 

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3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Avatar

    OriginalJud

    January 27, 2024at4:11 am

    Bill Wright I came to say this . Been seeing it on my daily bike ride.. The ferry being there makes sense also. Mostly wasted opportunity at that area if you ask me.

  2. Avatar

    Hugh Hazeltine

    January 26, 2024at5:45 pm

    We need to know more about Brian Caper and how his job dovetails into this issue. How long has he been in city government?

  3. Avatar

    Bill Wright

    January 26, 2024at4:10 pm

    For the first time in years there is a small cruise ship that makes St Pete its home. The GLORY from American Cruise Lines. Departs every 8 days with roughly 100 passengers. Why does it never get mentioned.

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