by James Salt
June 7, 2011
REP. RYAN, AT RALPH REED CONFAB, TURNS DOWN A BIBLE
BRADENTON, Fla., June 2, 2011 -- For months now, two of the best-kept secrets in Manatee County government have been the secret site plans and planning staff reviews of code-named "Project Royal" and "Project Palm" in the county's new Port Manatee Encouragement Zone.
That's an area east of the South Florida Gulf Coast's Port of Manatee where port-related businesses are expected to locate as the port grows with the expansion of the Panama Canal.
On Thursday, with no fanfare at all and a simple PowerPoint presentation, a little bit about the mystery projects slipped out when Project Royal was forced by a commissioner's enthusiasm for the Palm project to reveal that Project Royal is the code name for a project by railroad giant CSX and shipper Green Express to build a rail hub in the Encouragement Zone; a press release said the plans a long-term, $1-billion investment it says will create 2,400 new, permanent jobs here over the next two decades.
Logisitics Port Manatee, or LPM, the developers, are also planning 400 hires in the short term, and 500 during onstruction, which is expected to cost about $15 million, they told the Land Use Committee of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners, sitting Thursday afternoon in the downtown Bradenton county government chambers.
The item was the very last on the committee's agenda, long after the crowd and reporters that heard a two-hour, contentious debate about a local bar's music issues went home. After Commission Chair Carol Whitmore recessed the session at noon, the project was the only remaining scheduled item on the agenda. When she resumed the meeting at 1:30, only one reporter of the three that covered the morning session was there.
Meanwhile, Project Palm, according to an attorney for the Port Royal project who spoke with The Bradenton Times after the meeting, is an entertainment industry-related project comparable "to Disney On Ice," and would be a second enormous job-creator here.
Just the same, commissioners and even the port's director say they have no idea what Project Palm is; none of the commissioners have been in on the negotiations, and the most any of them would say about Project Palm is that "it's a big company."
Shrouded by confidentiality provisions of Florida's open-government Sunshine Act, Project Royal was described to commissioners Thursday as a "major, major link" by rail to major "consumption zones" in New York and Chicago for fresh and flash-frozen foods from Florida and points sou th. The county is home to several of the largest tomato producers in the world.
Both projects 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. The Canal Zone is undergoing a $700 million dredging and expansion of its own port to accommodate the huge ships.
Largely due to that proximity and the high cost of fuel, Port Manatee should soon become a major economic engine for the local and state economy. It is just one of Florida's 14 ports, but it has found favor with the state's otherwise tight-fisted governor as a new generator of tax revenues and jobs. Tens of millions of dollars were approved by Gov. Rick Scott for digging the deepwater channel at Port Manatee to a depth of 41 feet, enough for the beam of virtually any cargo ship steaming north from Panama.
"This is a major, major link," project Royal attorney Carol McGuire told commissioners.
From Commission Chair Carol Whitmore came a loud and clear, heartfelt "Thank you!"
Under the partnership between CSX and Green Express outlined by company resident VP for Florida Bob O'Malley, foods shipped from Puerto Rico, Costa Rica and points south or via the Panama Canal to the LPM hub would be carried by truck across US 41 to be stored briefly in a planned 66,600-sq.ft. refrigerated facility in the Encouragement Zone.
Green Express, via CSX, would provide 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 - some 41 million people are within 250 miles, LPM said in a press release.
Meanwhile, the Green Express will open new markets for Midwestern farmers who want to get fresh foods to the estimated 20.1 million residents of Florida.
"This is huge - huge - for Manatee County," said McGuire, representing developer Providence Logistics and Joe Mikes, owner of 733 acres of the proposed rail hub site. The eventual land acquisitions will total 2,300 acres, McGuire told the board.
Bob O'Malley, the resident vice president of CSX for Florida, accompanied by five project engineers, property owners and developers, told the Land Use Committee - which decides on all plans for development in the county, including the Port - that it will eventually build two miles of track and fill mile-long trains arriving at the Port or from inland Florida counties. and send it to Kingsbury. Truck fuel costs are eight times more expensive than his trains, he said.
After the meeting, O'Malley told The Bradenton Times the Encouragement Zone would need two miles of track to offload and refill the mile-long trains the facility will serve. The track will likely be in a loop, he said, rather than a straight line.
"That will be our investment," O'Malley said.
Ironically, the reason the project got revealed Thursday afternoon was that on May 24 the commissioners adopted a motion that told planners to look at various options for an access road across US 41, but not at South Dock Street, a major artery into the port, in order to accommodate the needs of the still-unknown Project Palm.
At a commission meeting May 24, the Project Palm attorney had made it known to the commissioners that their project would be "dead" if a crossing from South Dock St., probably at grade, across US 41 into the Encouragement Zone was permitted. As a result, Commissioner Larry Bustle's motion to study "all available options" was amended to read "except South Dock St. if it would impact Project Palm."
Thursday, after hearing of the CSX and Green Express plan from LPM, commissioners realized they had made a mistake by singling out the Project Palm project without considering the needs of other potential occupants of the Encouragement Zone.
Despite the Project Palm attorney's warning, commissioners took a chance. First they asked County Administrator Ed Hunzeker what to do; he 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. The commissioners' May 24 motion exempting South Dock St. created a bias toward Project Palm, he said.
Hunzeker recommended a fresh start on the issue, and the board quickly voted 7-0 to rescind the May 24 motion. Then they voted unanimously for the unamended original motion by Bustle "to look at all options" for an Encouragement Zone access road.
The Green Express had just arrived.
Joe Shea, editor of the American Reporter, is a county government writer for The Bradenton Times, an online daily newspaper covering Manatee County, Fla., where this story will appear in Friday's editions. It is used by permission.