ST. PETERSBURG — Just one ship, the Expo Clipper, was moored alongside the 1,200-foot wharf at the Port of St. Petersburg on a recent weekday afternoon.
Inside the port building, the air conditioning was switched off to save money, and two walk-through metal detectors stood guard over a deserted passenger arrival hall unused for several years.
In recent years, the port sometimes attracted the megayachts of billionaires such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil magnate and owner of the Chelsea FC soccer club in London.
But Allen’s 303-foot Tatoosh last moored in St. Petersburg in 2009. Despite $5 million worth of improvements over recent years, only 32 vessels have berthed at the port in the past 12 months. The city has spent more than $1 million subsidizing port operations over the past three years.
Now, some city leaders want to stem those losses and say the city is wasting a potentially valuable asset. They want the port to give up pursuing rich yacht owners and to focus solely on attracting marine science and oceanography research vessels. Those plans are backed by mayoral candidate Rick Kriseman.
“We need to stop chasing fairy tales and megayachts and gambling ships,” said City Council Chairman Karl Nurse. “We’ve been on that trip for 15 years, and it’s been a disaster.”
Port and city officials agree, sort of.
The port’s proximity to the C.W. Bill Young Marine Science Complex on Fourth Street South — home to several agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Florida Institute of Oceanography — should give it a competitive advantage over other ports in attracting research vessels.
Another lure for researchers is the presence at the port of SRI International, a nonprofit group whose research includes navigation and marine technology.
But port officials say that the port can also attract luxury yachts that are too big for marinas once it completes $2.2-million of renovations that includes electrical hookups for berthed boats. Currently, generators are needed to power boats when they are docked.
“That’s the question we’re looking at — the number of yachts that want to come and how often,” said Port Director Walt Miller. “It’s the same with the research vessels.”
The 3-acre port is one of 15 publicly owned ports in Florida, but it lives in the shadow of the 5,000-acre Port of Tampa, the state’s largest port. Last week, Tampa port officials unveiled plans for a new $55 million fuel terminal — the type of expansion that’s almost unthinkable in St. Petersburg.
Over the years, St. Petersburg officials have tried different ventures to boost port traffic. That included the 450-passenger Ocean Jewel, a gambling ship that went out of business. A passenger terminal was built to handle medium-sized cruise ships.
A port master plan developed in 1999 recommended a focus on marine science research but also included a recommendation that the city explore dredging to allow bigger ships to dock.
That idea was later scuttled by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers study, which said the costs would outweigh any benefits, said Dave Metz, the city’s director of downtown enterprise facilities.
The master plan also included Port Discovery, a proposed three-story educational facility that would expose students to the innovative marine-science research going on around the port.
In addition to fewer ships, the port has also been hamstrung by tougher security requirements introduced after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The port has lowered costs by using cameras where possible, but providing round-the-clock security costs close to $100,000 per year, Miller said.
That has led to discussions about downgrading the port to a dock. The new designation would exempt the port from increased security regulations but would prevent it for competing for Florida Department of Transportation grants. Since 2008, the port has received $13 million in grants and matching city funds. Roughly $10 million of that was used to attract SRI International to a new facility at the port.
“Whether it’s a port or not won’t make a huge difference to what vessels can use it,” said Miller.
The port’s best hope for the future is to focus on research vessels and education, said Peter Betzer, the emeritus dean of the College of Marine Science at the University of South Florida.
St. Petersburg’s port sits next to the largest marine-science complex in the southeastern United States at a time when scientists are still exploring the long-term effects of the BP oil spill, he said. The port could become a mooring spot for some of the 30 or so research vessels operating around the United States, including three the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses in the Gulf of Mexico.
Betzer would also like to see an educational facility to connect residents and students to the cutting-edge research being conducted in St. Petersburg.
“The focus on getting the bottom line to zero is completely misplaced,” Betzer said. “For a very modest investment, our city could become like a magnet.”