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Port of Gulfport stayed in touch with Chiquita, director says

By JACK WEATHERLY

Chiquita never made a clean break with the Port of Gulfport. And the Port never lost touch with the importer of bananas and pineapples during its 30-month absence.

And so insiders were not surprised when they announced last week they were getting back together – but quick.

Chiquita and the port plan to make the relationship a long one, just as it had been for 40 years before the company got caught at cross purposes when it was sold.

Jonathan Daniels, port executive director, notes that the port, which is still undergoing a $566 million restoration and expansion since Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has other long-term leases, either signed or under negotiation:

* Chemours, a spin-off from DuPont, signed a 60-year lease in 2013.

* McDermott International inked a 40-year lease in May 2014.

* Island View Casino signed a 50-year lease in 2013.

*  SeaOne Gulfport LLC and the port are discussing a possible 40-year lease.

The $450 million SeaOne liquified natural gas facility would push private investment beyond $600 million, exceeding the public money that was committed to the port, Daniels noted.

And he said the state offered no incentives for the Chiquita deal.

One critic said that the $566 million that was shifted from its original designation by the federal Housing and Urban Development for low-to-middle-income housing amounted to an incentive for all of recent signees.

The port through the state promised to create 1,300 jobs, 51 percent of which would be for those with low to middle incomes.

Yet the red tape connected with documentation of the jobs is a “disincentive,” scaring off some potential tenants, Daniels said.

“Four large (potential) tenants walked away early in the process,” Daniels said. “Our competitors have used it” against Gulfport.

The return of Chiquita will mean employment for about 40 longshoremen, who lost 80,000 annual man hours when the importer left. Chiquita is expected to directly employ 10 management and operations personnel.

International Longshoremen’s Association Local 1303 President Darius Johnson said: “I’m looking forward to having every piece of Chiquita’s operations back in Gulfport, and our longshoremen are ready to provide Chiquita with a strong workforce.”

The new lease allows the company “to grow the business beyond where they are now. We do know from our conversations that they do intend to grow the business significantly.”

The port’s three new gantry cranes allow the port to compare favorably with competitors in terms of time of turnaround, Daniels said.”

“And that turnaround time translates into savings financially,” he said. The turnaround time for New Orleans, which is an inland port on the Mississippi River, is 12 hours, compared with Gulfport’s two hours, he said.

Daniels said that the lease has defused allegations that the depth of the Gulfport harbor, 36 feet, would be too shallow for Chiquita’s new, larger ships.

“The port that they were calling on in Central America is shallower than Gulfport,” he said.

An 11th-hour decision by an Irish company not to buy Chiquita and the subsequent sale to Brazil-based Cutrale muddied the waters for the Port of New Orleans, Daniels said, agreeing with the New Orleans port’spresident and chief executive, Gary LaGrange.

Chiquita had maintained a ripening facility in the city of Gulfport during its absence from the Mississippi port.

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