Leadership Wanted: Inquire, Port of Tampa

The Port of Tampa.

It’s not your father’s bulk-cargo seaport anymore. It’s not just petroleum and lumber coming in and phosphate and citrus pellets going out.

While bulk remains the lion’s share of cargo, these are sometimes turbulent, transitional times at the Port of Tampa. To wit:

*The cruise market is back and growing.

*Serious efforts to gear up for a piece of the container business are under way.

*More Latin American trade is in the offing.

*Opportunities in Cuba beckon.

*The port owns sizable tracts of real estate coveted by developers.

*Thanks to proximity to the Florida Aquarium, The Forum, the Channelside entertainment complex and the Channel District’s exploding residential development, scruffy, maritime ambience no longer dominates the port’s fringes.

If ever the times demanded sophisticated leadership — with a premium on communication skills, conflict-resolution acumen, consensus-building ability and international savvy — they are now.

However, anyone remotely familiar with this region’s foremost economic colossus has to be disturbed — and probably dumbfounded — by recent happenings at the port.

Since March, when former port director George Williamson resigned, the port has been without a semblance of meaningful leadership. Granted, the port was hardly without issues prior to Williamson’s departure. Most notably, it was the frustrating efforts to navigate the tricky shoals between maritime interests and real estate scenarios.

After Williamson left, however, the unraveling commenced with the surprise elevation of deputy director Zelko Kirincich. The cabal-like move by three of the five Tampa Port Authority commissioners prompted immediate and indignant responses from Mayor Pam Iorio and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ronda Storms — the other two TPA board members. A few subplots and a couple of high-profile, Kirincich-initiated firings later, the Mayor had recommended a respected outsider, retired GTE executive Bill Starkey, as a care-taking, interim director. The plan, later approved by the board, is to keep Kirincich, a knowledgeable insider, as deputy.

The goal is to fill the top post permanently within four months. Moving expeditiously on this highest of priorities will be a notably good sign.

However it all shakes out, this much is abundantly evident. This has been no way to run an enterprise that’s worth $13 billion to the regional economy and supports more than 100,000 jobs. The Port of Tampa is this state’s largest deepwater seaport, annually handling some 3,700 vessels and more than 47 million tons of cargo.

What’s good for the port is good for the whole region.

The Port of Tampa is a major player in the national and international marketplace — and a formidable force in Channelside development. It can’t permit morale to founder, and it can’t allow long-time maritimers to feel marginalized. Nor can it countenance, slow, secretive decision-making.

What’s bad for the port is bad for the whole region — and the entire community.

The time is now to right this ship before it strays too far off course. The next captain will have sized up the board, his deputy, the culture of the port and its multiple — and sometimes conflicting — charges.

The new boss will then make a difference. He’d better.

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