TAMPA — During Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s first trade mission to Panama in 2011, Panamanian officials made one thing clear:
“Tampa was not on their radar,” Buckhorn said Thursday.
Despite sharing a language and culture with Latin America, Tampa lacked the physical connections needed to help business and investment flow between the regions.
“That has changed in the last three years,” Buckhorn said 12 hours after getting off a direct flight from Panama City. “It has changed drastically.”
This week, Buckhorn led a 40-member trade delegation to Panama, which sits at the hub of air travel and container-ship traffic in the Americas. The delegation included a dozen administrators from the University of South Florida, which has been developing a training facility in Panama similar to its Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation in downtown Tampa.
Unlike past trips, which took seven hours or more with a connection in Miami or Atlanta, this week’s trip took three hours aboard a 7 a.m. flight on Copa Airlines, Panama’s national carrier. The group was in meetings by 10:45, said Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.
There wasn’t even a time change.
“It’s a lot quicker to get to Panama City than it is to get to most cities in the U.S.,” Homans said.
Copa began direct service four days a week to and from Tampa last December. Homans wants to see that expand to seven days a week.
“Our goal is to fill the business class from Tampa Bay,” he said. “The Copa flights are a barometer of our success.”
Over the next 12 months, Homans plans to fill some of those seats with another trade mission to Panama and one coming from there.
Local economic leaders see Panama playing a key role in the Tampa region’s growth over the coming decades. The ongoing expansion of the century-old Panama Canal will increase the amount of cargo moving through it, including ships to and from Tampa’s port. Copa Airlines has connections to nations throughout Central and South America, including two — Colombia and Brazil — that Tampa officials have visited in recent years.
Port Tampa Bay President Paul Anderson compared Panama City to Atlanta: a city that has become a hub for business travel at all levels.
The $5 billion canal expansion has become mired in a dispute between the authority that runs the canal and the Spanish company overseeing the expansion, which is running about $1.8 billion over budget.
Anderson said canal officials promised Tampa’s delegation the authority is prepared to take over the project if the impasse continues.
Tampa’s 43-foot-deep port, the deepest in Florida, can handle the ships likely to transit the expanded canal, Anderson said.
The next step will be installing two cranes in 2015 that can load and unload so-called Panamax container ships. Doing so will open Tampa to direct shipments through the canal, Anderson said.
At the moment, cargo on Panamax ships is broken down and reloaded onto small vessels in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic before arriving in Tampa.
The 2007 U.S.-Panama free trade agreement will help Tampa take advantage of the economic boom sweeping across Latin America, Anderson said.
“The growth potential is great,” Anderson said.