Port conference highlights city's potential

Speakers says economy has made it tough, but they see a bright future.

BY DAVID BAUERLEIN
STORY UPDATED AT 8:44 AM ON WEDNESDAY, MAR. 18, 2009

Surviving the global economic recession will be like staying afloat in rough water, one speaker said Tuesday at the JaxPort Logistics and Intermodal Conference.

Another panelist used a boxing metaphor.

"I think of the economy we're in as being a punch-drunk fighter in the 15th round," said Steve Rand, president and chief executive office of AMPORTS, headquartered in Jacksonville.

Whether the references were nautical or pugilistic, speakers repeatedly sounded how tough it is it to operate in the international trade arena at a time when shipments are falling worldwide.

Keynote speaker John Stokes, partner in Highstar Capital, a private equity firm, said port-related businesses should expect more volatility and "unrelenting pressure on cost." He said when growth returns, he anticipates it will be "limited growth," not a skyrocketing effect.

"It's going to get harder and harder to get people to invest in your project," he said.

But the conference also highlighted the potential for Jacksonville to emerge as a bigger trade hub after the economy rebounds. The conference sold out 250 spots for attendees interested in hearing experts look ahead to the problems and opportunities for Southeast ports, including Jacksonville.

"We realize that we're at the intersection where we're taking on a much bigger role in terms of U.S. ports," JaxPort spokeswoman Nancy Rubin said.

Mayor John Peyton welcomed attendees to the three-day gathering at Amelia Island Plantation. He said he expects the economy will "get worse before it gets better," but the port remains crucial to long-term economic growth for the city.

"We really are trying to focus on our strengths and play to our strengths," he said, ticking off advantages such as interstate highways and railroad connections.

He said Jacksonville will vigorously pursue federal economic stimulus money for dredging at the port, even as he said he is bothered by the steep increase in federal debt. He compared the spending in the stimulus package to giving whiskey to an alcoholic. But he said the policy has already been decided so Jacksonville can't afford to pass up the money.

"We are going to pursue as great a share as we can," he said. "If it's not Jacksonville, it will be another city."

david.bauerlein@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4581

 

 

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