By David Bauerlein, The Times-Union
Mayor John Peyton said Thursday that Jacksonville needs to be "bold and aggressive and stick our necks out" in expanding its port because international trade is the city's best route to higher-paying jobs.
Even as stock markets around the globe have bounced up and down at dizzying rates, Peyton said the city can't afford to stop investing in the port.
"We are in an all-out competition for who will be the premier port of the Southeast United States," Peyton told about 330 people at the third annual Global Trade and Transportation Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Jacksonville Riverfront.
He said his office is working on a spending plan for road construction between the port and Interstate 95 so trucks can move faster between ships and the highway.
He said in an interview the plan for road construction would have several phases. He declined to give an estimated price tag but said it could easily be tens of millions of dollars.
Peyton said the goal is to make Jacksonville the third-busiest port on the East Coast, behind only New York City and Hampton Roads in Virginia. He said Miami has too much road congestion to be a port for the entire Southeast, leaving Charleston, S.C., and Savannah, Ga., as Jacksonville's main competitors.
International trade has been a bright spot for the economy, both nationally and in Florida. Through August, Florida exported $47.7 billion of goods, a 26 percent increase compared with the same time period in 2007, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by Enterprise Florida.
Jacksonville accounted for almost $7 billion of exports, an 18.7 percent increase.
Gov. Charlie Crist, visiting Jacksonville to watch Alenia North America sign an agreement Thursday to build a plane assembly plant here, said international trade will continue to be a force for the state's economy. He said "time will tell" whether Florida exports maintain their pace.
Some signs indicate global demand is cooling off. The nationwide value of exports in August was down 2 percent from July, and imports were down 2.4 percent, the U.S. Department of Commerce said.
Lad Daniels, executive director of the First Coast Manufacturers Association, said he thinks the economy is headed into a recession.
"I think it will be global in nature," he said. "It will have an impact on every sector of the economy, not excluding manufacturing."
Daniels said that "bottom of the barrel" view will carry over to 2009 and 2010. But after that, "we're off and running again." He said Jacksonville's port is well-positioned for growth as a gateway to Florida's market of 18 million people, the city has solid labor-management relations, and the city has room for port-related growth.
In a keynote speech at the global trade symposium, Virginia Port Authority Deputy Executive Director Jeff Keever said business at his port has fallen off in the past two months. But the Virginia port's long-term plan includes a $2.4 billion marine terminal.
For Jacksonville, the big-ticket item would be deepening the ship channel to at least 47 feet, a project that would cost up to $500 million. The Army Corps of Engineers is studying that proposal and is expected to give an answer next year.