Rising to a New Level
By George White
Once a sleepy port best known for its proximity to Kennedy Space Center, sport fishing and the occasional cargo shipment, Port Canaveral became a world leader in the cruise industry and is bustling with activity as an economic driver in Brevard County, Central Florida and beyond.
At the helm since 2013 is CEO John Walsh, who is unapologetically pushing to make that bigger role for Port Canaveral a reality as soon as possible. But as he said, there is time for the due diligence to do it the right way.
Walsh said the Port leadership is just starting to solve the equation for future growth involving the balancing act between tourism and cruise ships, and cargo and environmental concerns. “It’s in the infancy. I think people can’t even fathom the possibilities here for the most part, but the components are lining up,” Walsh said.
A Whole New World of Opportunity
But even a bright economic future should be tempered with reverence to its recreation-oriented past, he said.
“The Port for so long had been that little sleepy thing for sport fishing. It’s great for that and we still have that here – our commissioners want to make sure of that – and we just built a world-class boat ramp. We think it is an important balance for quality of life in the area. We have more recreational opportunities in this Port than the other 14 Florida ports put together.”
That being said, there is now a whole world of economic opportunities for cargo and cruise ships, both benefiting from a 2014 project focused on deepening and widening Canaveral Harbor to allow larger cruise ships and cargo container ships to dock at the Port.
“We’re going down to 46 feet from 44 in the outer and 40 in the inner. That’s a significant increase that really brings us current. We were behind the 8 ball. That deepening project really helps us for the cruise market,” Walsh said.
“We have a soft clay and sand bottom with no major environmental challenges to go even deeper. Our 21st century deepening project is to take it down to 55 feet. That will be about a four- to six-year study. We’ll really be the largest and deepest port in the southeast United States,” he said.
Topping development in the cruise area is the recent opening of Cruise Terminal No. 1, which will be able to process ships with up to 8,000 passengers, where currently the maximum is about 4,500 passengers.
“It really takes us to that next class of ship and a lot of the new builds are those larger ships. And it’s expandable, so if the next generation’s bigger, the dock is already big enough for even longer ships than exist today and the terminal can go up to 7,500 passengers.”
“We’re set. We never have to say no, which is our goal when someone calls and says ‘we’d like to bring you a ship,’” he said.
The Push for Cargo
Progress in the cargo area is also apparent as the Port now has two 270-foot-tall cranes and a new container terminal facility.
“Since the 1970s, containerization has become the big push in all kinds of cargo, whether it’s refrigerated or dry goods – even bulk is now going containerized so that when it arrives at its location, wherever that is, they can just stick it on a truck and get it there. You can get it right to the source without multiple handling. So in many ways, we’ve let our community down by not aggressively pursuing containers early enough and we can see that by looking at Fort Lauderdale and Miami.”
With those improvements in place, there is another round of planning to turbocharge the Port’s commercial development and economic impact in the area by the Port Authority promoting, and perhaps even creating, warehouses and distribution centers close to I-95.
“That containerization really opens the door. The second piece is having good quality warehouses, distribution centers and e-fulfillment centers. Today’s consumer is driving a whole change in how distribution is done. We envision big million-square-foot warehouses, and to have that and have it done affordably, you need two things: a good quality workforce, which we have here in Brevard County, and relatively inexpensive land, which we also have. It is a perfect match.
“Couple that with having a seaport and several world-class airports, and what we see is, by having that warehouse here, you get to every major Florida market in a three-hour truck drive,” he said.
Making Rail the Connection
Another major initiative that may one day have a profound economic impact on the area is for the Port to take over the 17 miles of Kennedy Space Center rail line and extend it 10 miles down into the Port, crossing the Banana River on a trestle.
“Rail line at KSC is very much in the study process right now, but the conceptual plans have been done,” he said. “Initial environmental concerns about the idea will be considered and addressed.
“We come in with that environmental responsibility. We don’t want to ignore that. In fact, we think we can be part of the solution. Now we’ve seen lots of things thrown out there in the community, like we’re going to build a causeway and it’s going to cause environmental damage. The reality is we think it can be a very responsible connection. We can actually improve, based on engineers and scientists that we’ve engaged to look at it, the Indian River Lagoon. There’s an opportunity to support the trestle on piles so there would be very little disruption, and then you put oyster mats on each one of the piles. We definitely don’t want to do a causeway,” Walsh said.
“Unmistakable and Growing”
All aspects of the Port Canaveral equation add up to new jobs, something Walsh and his staff believe will be a continuing source of pride.
“We can be a huge driver. This year we’ve created about 1,500 jobs and these projects are just gearing up. As the cargo operations come in, the growing ‘crews’ will create about 2,500 jobs here. The cargo eventually will grow to about 5,000 jobs.
“We’re thrilled about the future and to be able to say that we’ve helped create jobs and opportunities for that next generation, from a personal standpoint and from all of our 217 staff members. We look at it as a strong, bright future in the area. If we can continue to create 1,500 to 2,500 serious, living wage jobs in the area, it doesn’t take long. Talk about compounding. If more people have jobs, more people will be paying taxes. We’re getting ready for where that next cruise terminal will go,’’ Walsh said.
The Port’s impact is unmistakable and growing, said Tom Williamson, general manager/partner at Ocean Partners Associates, Ltd., which includes Hampton Inn Cocoa Beach, Courtyard by Marriott Cocoa Beach, Best Western Oceanfront and Days Inn Cocoa Beach.
“All of the hotels in our area are feeling the impact of the Port, including Titusville. On any given cruise day, most hotels in Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach have lobbies bustling with cruisers that are either being transported to the Port by hotel-arranged transportation, or driving there on their own. If the projections given recently by John Walsh are accurate, that by 2022 the number of cruise passengers will double from what it is today, the future looks very bright. That, along with the burgeoning cargo business, will certainly bode well for all of the businesses in our region.”