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The birth of Port Citrus: From TSLs to barges

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By Mike Wright

Editor’s note: This is the second in a four-part Sunday series on Port Citrus. Today’s articles deal with Ports Citrus plans today from a year ago; and public perceptions of the project.

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CRYSTAL RIVER — The idea seemed like something shot out of a cannon — a proposal so lofty that it left some in the audience stunned by its breadth.

“This was really a knock-your-socks-off presentation,” Theodora Rusnak, president of the Citrus County Council, said at the time.

It was a Tuesday in late February 2011. Tampa attorney Fred Busack, known as the expert behind creating the Transportation Planning Organization, explained in great detail how the widening of the Panama Canal could spell big-time prosperity in Citrus County.

Busack’s power point at the commission meeting discussed post-Panamax container ships, the seaport competition in Florida, Texas, California and Mexico, and a concept called trans-sea lifters, or TSLs, which hadn’t been built yet but could eventually move containers to small ports with water depth too shallow to handle large ships.

He described how the Cross Florida Barge Canal could be used as part of a “conveyor belt” of ports all along the Gulf Coast. The job potential for a Port Citrus, he said, was limitless.

County commissioners, who, unbeknownst to the public, had already viewed Busack’s presentation individually in his office, loved the idea.

Commissioner Winn Webb said it could create “thousands of jobs.” He compared it to getting in on the ground floor of Google.

Commissioner Rebecca Bays implored the public to stand with the Port Citrus plan.

“We need you to champion these causes,” she said. “This is the best we’ve ever offered up to you.”

The board backed Busack’s plan of action, and then quickly voted to spend $50,000 to hire Busack’s law firm — Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar — to lobby the Legislature to change state law so that Citrus would be added as the 15th recognized port in Florida.

Busack said the lobbying was necessary because other ports don’t want the new competition.

The lobbying paid off. Port Citrus was added to a Homeland Security bill for Florida seaports. Citrus joined the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council, or FSTED, and the Florida Ports Council, the expert advisory arm to FSTED.

County commissioners resurrected a Citrus County Port Authority that had been dormant since 1985 and began meeting to discuss port business. Commissioners named County Administrator Brad Thorpe and County Attorney Richard Wesch as the port director and attorney, respectively, with no change in pay.
Thorpe and Wesch attend FSTED and Florida Ports Council meetings, as do Meek and Bays.

“They’ve been very warm, very engaging,” Bays said, referring to the other seaport members. “They understand we’re not there to compete with them.”

While commissioners were generally non-committal to Busack’s trans-sea lifters and barge conveyor belt proposal, they now say their vision of Port Citrus is something much smaller — a barge port, not a container ship port.

“It’s incumbent on us to explore those opportunities and possibilities that are out there right now,” Meek said.

John Siefert, executive director of the Citrus County Economic Development Council, said the county already has the asset it needs for a port project.

“What do we have that is unique that Marion County or Hernando County doesn’t have? A ready-made barge canal,” Siefert said.

Outsider discovered port potential

Citrus County has had the Cross Florida Barge Canal since the early 1970s, when President Richard Nixon halted its construction. In 1985, a Citrus County Port Authority was created but never became active.

The surrounding property includes a state park, vacant land, mining and a large power plant to the south.

And barges now move rock from a nearby mine for an artificial reef being built near Anna Maria Island in Manatee County.

Still, county officials acknowledge the idea of a port on the barge canal never occurred to them until Busack suggested it.

Bays said Busack saw a wider potential than a canal from which rock can be hauled.

“We live in a more rural county. We don’t think as big sometimes,” she said. “We’re not involved sometimes in a more global picture with what’s going on around us. We tend to stay focused on what’s in front of us.”

Commissioners and business leaders see great potential in Port Citrus, even with no plans to dredge the 15-foot-deep canal.

Siefert said he has heard from two companies — one in Kentucky and the other in Michigan — looking to build small manufacturing plants for their products that could be sent from the barge canal to the Port of Tampa, and then sent by container ship to Europe or South America.

“There is a potential for companies to locate here and to utilize that barge canal,” Siefert said. “We have lower land costs, lower labor costs. We have employment opportunities. We would be competitive with other locations.”

Being sanctioned as a Florida port creates public financing for a port feasibility study. County officials are now reviewing proposals and will whittle the list to three for commissioners to consider.

The feasibility study will pinpoint if a port is plausible and, if so, what kind of port should be developed.
County officials say they cannot tap state and federal funds for port development without having a recognized state port.

“If it’s a public port we get the money for the infrastructure through the ports council,” Bays said.

Meek said another reason for being part of the state ports system is to work with other ports.

“I think we can open ourselves up to opportunities that would not be there if we were not part of the discussion,” he said. “By being a member of the ports council, we’re at the table and part of the conversation, and that enables us do to things we could not do on our own.”

Chronicle reporter Mike Wright can be reached at 352-563-3228 or mwright@ chronicleonline.com.

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* Feb. 22, 2011: Tampa attorney Fred Busack presents Port Citrus concept to public at Citrus Count Commission meeting. Board votes to set up Port Authority, join the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council, or FSTED, and the Florida Ports Council, the expert advisory arm to FSTED. Board also votes to pay Busack's law firm, Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar $50,000 to lobby Legislature to add Citrus to list of recognized Florida ports.

* May 4, 2011: Legislature approves Homeland Security bill for Florida seaports that adds Citrus as the 15th recognized port. It requires the county to have a feasibility study concluded by 2014 and removes Citrus County from the FSTED if the feasibility study does not support development of a port.

* May 24, 2011: Gov. Rick Scott signs legislation that formally creates Port Citrus.

* July 12, 2011: Citrus County commissioners meet for the first time as the Citrus County Port Authority. County Administrator Brad Thorpe is named port director; County Attorney Richard Wesch is port attorney.

* September 2011: FSTED agrees to fund $50,000 toward feasibility study; equal match is required locally. Citrus-Marion-Levy Workforce Connection, Citrus County Economic Development Council and county commission (using business tax revenue) agree to meet the match.

* Oct. 5, 2011: Commissioners tour Port Manatee on an unofficial fact-finding trip.

* January 2012: County receives interest from nine companies to perform feasibility study. Commissioners are waiting for the staff to narrow that list to three; the board will interview those three finalists and select one to negotiate a contract.

—Compiled by Mike Wright.

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