TAMPA — Patrick Allman envisions the day when a Cuban businessman could come to Tampa, purchase 20 cars at auction and on the same day, ship them back to his home country on a ferry docked in the Channel District.
“I could see a shipment of Ruskin tomatoes heading to Cuba,” accompanied by a boat-load of tourists, said Allman, a member of the Tampa Port Authority board.
Should the political winds change and travel and trade between the United States and Cuba resume in a more traditional sense, Port Tampa Bay needs to be prepared, he said. “We’re thinking ahead to future opportunities. We are apolitical, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say this situation will change in the future.” Cuba’s leaders are aging, he added.
Allman said he has already spoken to the consultants preparing the Channelside Master Plan about earmarking a piece of property near the cruise ship terminals for a future cargo and passenger ferry that could run between here and Cuba.
The public will have input on that master plan, as well. Port Tampa Bay is hosting an open house Tuesday to give the community a chance to weigh in on the future of the Channel District and how it should be developed. The open house is scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. at the Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Old Water St., first floor, TECO Room.
There is plenty of room for public input on what should go in on the more than 35 acres of undeveloped land Port Tampa Bay owns in the Channel District, said Luis Ajamil, the consultant for the study. And there is room for a future ferry berth, he said.
“Being we are one of the closest ports to Cuba, from my perspective, I asked the question, what if,” Allman said. “Are we in a position to take advantage of it when the time is right? All we’ve decided so far is that if a ferry opportunity arises, we could use land near the cruise ship area.”
The United States imposed a trade embargo on Cuba in 1960, one year after Fidel Castro seized power, and five decades later, it remains in effect. But in recent years, as Fidel Castro has turned over power to his brother, Raul, and both are aging, there has been more discussion of lifting that embargo.
Tampa International Airport already offers six flights a week to Havana, Santa Clara and Holguin and members of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce have visited the island nation. Former Tampa Mayor Dick Greco even traveled there in 2002 with a contingent of local businesspeople.
As for the port, there is history. There was cattle trade with Cuba out of Tampa in the 1800s and Henry B. Plant, the railroad tycoon, envisioned trade with Cuba and the entire Caribbean basin, purchasing a steamer in 1884 to connect Tampa with Key West and Havana.
Port Tampa Bay is in a great position for a future use such as a ferry because it has close proximity to the interstate system and already has a U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office and adequate parking, Allman said.
Years back, cruise ship growth was a top priority for the Channel District, said Ajamil, of Bermello, Ajamil and Partners Inc., the firm conducting the study. But the newer, larger cruise ships can’t fit under the Sunshine Skyway bridge, so that priority is shifting.
“Now you have a lot more residential and decreased cruise ship traffic (in the future), so that opens a lot of opportunities for adding to the urban living experience,” Ajamil said. “When you have housing, there are needs that must be met, whether it’s open space or coffee shops,” grocery stores or office buildings.
“At the same time, there is a side that wants a working waterfront,” Ajamil said. “That ferry might be one of those things we might fit in there. It can be a multidimensional property.”
Ajamil said only about eight acres of the 45 acres the port owns in the Channel District are already developed. “The bad thing is that there is nothing there,” he said. “The good thing is that there’s nothing there, so we don’t have to be knocking stuff down.
“We are going to be pretty wide open” in listening to ideas from the public during the open house, Ajamil said. “We will share our site analysis, what we see as the attributes of the site. What we want from the public is ideas.”
After the open house, the consultants will come up with a recommended master plan and present it to the Tampa Port Authority board.
Ajamil said the Channelside Master Plan could be completed within three or four months and could be implemented over the next decade or so. It will be incorporated into the Port Tampa Bay Master Plan, which is being updated.