We can all agree that the Port of Pensacola is pretty much on everyone’s back burner. It occupies a space, a chunk of land, where some developers see a thousand condos rising above the “best harbor in all the Americas” according to an Admiral in the Spanish Navy sometime in the 1600’s.
A century ago, close to two dozen piers reached out into the deep water, bringing ships from around the world to send out our white pine by the millions of board feet, and red snapper in millions of cans. We can still see the remains of the coal pier just west of the Three Mile Bridge, and what waterfront remains does so based on long forgotten structures that brought entire trains alongside cavernous ships holds.
But in recent years, some light has been seen coming from the port. The “Marine service industry” in the form of Offshore-Inland, a company that provides all sorts of services to the maritime industry. Some refer to it as “paint and body work” on ships, repairs of all types, and the specialized works of equipment and telemetry involving changing out entire suites of gear for specialized sub-sea work. Offshore-Inland (O-I) services tankers and pipeline-laying ships, heavy left ships and offshore service boats from bases around the Gulf and in Mexico. One of the most attractive things about the Port of Pensacola: From the Mobile sea buoy, which marks the entrance to the channel leading to our western neighbor, it’s closer and quicker to come to the Port of Pensacola. In fact, if you had two identical ships, one would head into Mobile, the other come here, tie up, unload some cargo on a truck and the truck would be waiting at the pier in Mobile by the time the other ship was tied up.
The O-I deal with the city could fill many pages of the back and forth, and how long efforts took before they came to fruition. It started as a “try it out” deal, or in city talk “Short Term Operating Agreement” for one year and a 30-day “out” option. Then the revenue started coming to the city. They charge up to $7.50 per day, per foot, for each ship tied up there. On a 600 foot ship, that’s $4500, per day. You have to remember, ships are only making money for their owner when they are sea. So when you had ships like the blue hulled “Global 1200” and the red hulled “Sampson” with those giant crane equaling the tallest buildings downtown, the city was pulling in major bucks every day. Coupled with what the crew, customers and subcontractors flying or driving to town, plus the spending at restaurants and bars downtown, and at the mall, and the equipment being purchased and trucked in from across the country, it added up to a major financial impact.
The latest construction at the port is based on an O-I client, and took years of dealings with a city bureaucracy reluctant to do anything to add to the job market in the city. That client will eventually manufacture some specialized and proprietary pipeline technology, and when the oil patch was booming in the last couple of years, it was all they could do to get the contract and building of the facility speeded up. Then the bottom fell out, and $3.50 gas became $2.00 gas, and with the change in price, the need for the pipeline went away. No drilling company was expanding. So, a set of warehouses with 110,000 square feet sits empty, with walls incomplete, looking mostly like hurricane-battered buildings.
Another potential O-I client thought Pensacola would be perfect for their operation. They have a fleet of three special offshore ships that will go out for a month or two at a time. They are larger, in the 600 foot range, a bit smaller than the Eagle tanker fleet that moved through our port in ’12-’13, with those large orange tankers. But they have special needs. Those ships need only to anchor, or what is called “ballast down” to utilize the three thousand ton crane and bring giant spools of undersea pipeline aboard. They don’t need to tie up on a dock, because the consumables and equipment can be brought to the ship on a barge, like fuel is brought to them, loaded, and then the ship, with a fresh crew, weighs anchor and cruises out to the gulf.
The ships draw 30+ feet of water, which means they can’t use the entirety of the bay, only certain areas where they could anchor, perform the changeover, and depart. Those two areas would be first, at the turning basin adjacent to NAS, where the tugs turned the training carriers once based here, both the Lexington and the Forrestal. Since they departed, only an occasional Navy vessel has visited, plus Coast Guard and littoral combat ships being built in Mobile.
The visiting ships would only be there for 48-72 hours for each evolution, and wouldn’t need anything from the Navy, just a place to drop anchor. They would remain a few hundred yards offshore and therefore not a security factor. Well, the Navy, via base commander, Capt. Keith Hoskins, said “No”. Didn’t matter that the turning basin hadn’t been used in a decade for its true purpose, they just said no.
The other spot just about perfect for the ships to anchor in deep water is just south of that area, on the north side of the Fort Pickens peninsula, south of the Gulf Intercostal Water Way (GIWW). Turns out, that water is not “public”, it belongs to the National Park Service, which administers the Gulf Islands National Seashore. When approached, the company made its case, and the Park Service said “No”, with park superintendent Dan Brown (The park ranger, not the author) saying directly, “You would block the view from the Campground or Fort Pickens”. The potential environmental impact was not among the reasons, just ‘blocking the view”. Didn’t matter that the peninsula is 7 miles long from the front gate to the Fort, but blocking a few hundred feet for a couple of days was “too much”. Buddy McCormick, the senior vice president of Offshore-Inland, and who brought the operation to Pensacola, checked out the math, and figured that the ship, at 600 feet long, would occupy about 2/1000th of all the waterfront the park has facing Pensacola Bay, and suggested “I bet a bunch of people would come to the park just to see the ship and take pictures…it’s one of the strangest looking in the entire world.” And he adds “The operation is minute, and is random, there is no fixed schedule, and we will be “turtle friendly” during the nesting season.”
Well, after hearing “No” twice, and loudly, the ship-owning company went elsewhere, to find a “friendlier” environment, and at last report was planning on homeporting those ships in Pascagoula, Mississippi.
We didn’t talk about money, did we? Try this: Three ships home-ported in Pensacola would be a big thing. A REALLY big thing in the maritime industry, where people would check out why this company came here. And then there are the jobs. Each change-over or evolution for a ship would require round-the-clock work from two shifts of workers from O-I, and those jobs run anywhere from $45-$75,000 per year. Figure between 40-60 workers total. They have been known to fill a hotel with the service crews. And the “home-porting” would mean the roughly 75-man crew of those ships would drive or fly here every month or two, sail away, and come back, replaced by another crew. The contractors who charter the boat bring their own crew, which could add up to 150 or more they are sure to buy gas and food and hotel rooms, and probably bring the family down for the look around at the beach and a museum or two. And it means more hotel rooms and more restaurant visits and that counts as tourism.
Easy numbers? Each change-over would have an economic impact of between $500,000 and one-million dollars. Figure two dozen of those changes every year. That’s MAJOR bucks from business that doesn’t consume electricity or the sewer system, and only a little use of the road system, and certainly not a strain on the school system. It churns the money through hotels and restaurants and parking and loading equipment through the port onto a barge. It goes towards the tugboats and harbor pilots. So with the churn, (a multiple of 5 to 7 times) you’re looking at a potential impact of over $100,000,000.00 per year. Let me repeat that: One hundred million additional dollars working through the Pensacola economy every year.
A public relations consultant heard about all this from a staffer at O-I, and the first thing that popped in his head was that O-I or the ship owners should meet with Congressman Jeff Miller, or someone from his office, who could then make a phone call to the base or the park and see if something could be worked out. That hasn’t happened until now. In the last week, McCormick, a Gulf Breeze resident has penned a note to the Congressman asking for help.
McCormick saying “We wanted to work with the Navy and the National Seashore” They have the perfect spots, but if we needed to delay the replenishment operation, we could. When those ships come in with HUGE cranes, they could lift most anything and place it where it was needed. But we’re NOT going to give up! Between Congressman Jeff Miller and Senators Rubio and Nelson, we’re trying to get some cooperation. At this point McCormick becomes an evangelist for the project: “Pensacola has it ALL. The airport is 15 minutes away from the port, and we will bring in a couple of planeloads of crews and contractors at every evolution. The interstate ends about a mile from the dock. We have plenty of dock space and if a barge needs to pull alongside in the Commendencia slip, they have room there too! The crews love it, because there are 20 restaurants and a dozen more bars within a few blocks, easy walking distance, and when they get liberty, they’re heading over to the beach.”
When asked about the significance of “home porting” the ships here, McCormick says “Huge impact, Major logistic support base, full time jobs, and people in the offshore industry would pay attention, and it would help attract other business for the port.” His other biggest problem: the depth of the channel. “The Army Corps of Engineers has promised to resume dredging operations of the channel this fall, and we want to make sure that happens. It’s vital to the port. While the posted depth if 35’, it’s really only about 30 or 31 feet, and that makes a big difference.” He cites the commissioning of the Navy’s destroyer USS William P. Lawrence, (DDG-110) an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, commissioned in Mobile in June of 2011. That event was supposed to take place in Pensacola because of Lawrences’ history as a legendary Naval Aviator. But the channel couldn’t safely handle its 31’ draft.
Using the motto of the Lawrence, McCormick and Offshore-Inland vow to “Never Give In”. They had to fight the staffers at city hall to bring their business to town at a time when the city was hurting for new employment, and they have been the lead business for any improvements to the port, like serious electrical service and proper water and sewer links, making it, as promised by Mayor Ashton Hayward more than 4 years ago “a green port”. And McCormick remains hopeful in thinking things will go his way, despite the “no’s” blockading their use of the bay.