The Port’s Path
The environment enveloping the Port of Pensacola is just about perfect. It looks a little like the quasi-industrial waterfront of paradise, with the sparkling blue water of Pensacola Bay fading seamlessly into a sunny-day sky.
That blue is especially piercing.
“It’s the most vibrant blue I’ve seen in a long time,” notes Amy Miller, director of the city’s port. “I mean, that is just gorgeous.”
Miller’s right. That blue is insane—more appropriate, perhaps, for a splashy brochure full of Caribbean-resort glossies. But it also looks nice on the image of the port displayed on an easel during a recent tour of the facility offered to local media and others interested in the site’s current state of affairs.
In sharp contrast to the blue warmth conveyed in the image, the actual landscape of Pensacola’s port was bitterly windswept and chilly during the city’s second annual tour of the facility. The tour is designed to highlight the port’s current operations, to provide a picture of what the municipal facility looks like today, as well as an indication of what its future may look like.
“It’s an opportunity for you to hear from the businesses that operate here,” Miller told the assembled invitees—a shivering collection of press, government officials and members of the business community—as they warmed themselves with a lunch of fried chicken and banana pudding.
A Quick History Lesson
Pensacola’s port has a long and storied history. The city lists 1743 as the year cargo—consisting of pine and pitch products, as well as wood masts and spars for sailing vessels—was first exported from the port.
Over the centuries, the port has seen a lot of change. It has been ravaged by hurricanes, burned multiple times—once by the Confederate Army as they retreated—and held both privately and publicly. And it has facilitated the flow of a myriad of goods, like lumber, cotton, bricks, grain, tobacco, flour, turpentine, pig iron, peanuts, coal and creosote-soaked poles.
By the 1950s, following a series of fires, the modern port was starting to take shape. The site was redeveloped in phases, and by the late 1970s, the Port of Pensacola was christened as a municipal department.
In more recent years, the port has shifted from an operational facility focused on imports and exports to one catering to long-term industrial tenants. This variety of tenant used the port to store frozen meat or asphalt or bulk lime.
Today, Pensacola’s port continues to evolve. And that’s what Miller was keen to show off during the port tour.
A Dangerous Question
Earlier this year, the city of Pensacola released a survey detailing the community’s assessment of the port and how they viewed its future. As the facility’s director, Miller didn’t consider the exercise to be particularly safe.
How did city residents feel about their port? How did they think it should operate going forward? Such questions can be dangerous.
“It was a bit of a calculated risk to ask that question,” Miller explained.
As it turns out, the survey indicated that the public’s perception and assessment lined up pretty well with the roadmap already being drawn up at the port. They viewed the facility as continuing to evolve, this time to serve clients perhaps not considered traditional for the port, like those involved with technology or marine research or aquaculture.
While still maintaining a whiff of its industrial waterfront past, the port is currently home to a number of tenants that bring a new, niche flavor to the site. And it is this new variety of tenant that city officials believe provides a template for the future and a path forward for a facility operating in a competitive and fluid climate.
“We found ways to be successful in niches that are profitable to us,” said Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson. “And we found opportunities to expand in the future.”
One example of such a niche client is the American Magic sailing team. The team—which is competing in the America’s Cup sailing competition—will be holed up in Pensacola for the winter. Boasting multiple boats and utilizing multiple port facilities, the team is practicing in Pensacola Bay until next March.
Other examples of this new-age stripe of port tenant involve an oyster company and a billionaire-fueled ship overhaul. The Pensacola Bay Oyster Company uses the port as an aquaculture site, while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is busy retrofitting his Blue Origin ship in hopes of eventually landing a rocket on the vessel.
The Cruise Ships Aren’t Coming
Mathew Pate has been in the family business all his life. He is, in fact, five generations deep with Pate Stevedore.
A stevedore, Pate explained to a small group of tour attendees huddled around him on the port tour, is one of the oldest, most basic types of jobs to be had on a port.
“It’s an occupational name for loading and unloading,” he said.
Like the Port of Pensacola itself, Pate’s family has experienced the varying evolutions of the site. They have tended to all variety of cargo over the years, and the shifts in cargo reflect the facility’s broader change.
As Pate details his family’s business, a row of large, wrapped equipment components are lined up behind him. A woman on the tour inquiries about the items.
“A lot of wind turbine components from GE,” he said, explaining how the company imports the parts from Brazil and then ships them out to the Midwest. “GE really likes the Port of Pensacola.”
In addition to the GE equipment, Pate said he also sees a lot of forest products come through the port. At least, he did prior to recent tariffs being imposed.
“A majority of the forest products were going to Turkey,” Pate shrugged.
After listening to Pate’s presentation on the local stevedore game, one of the tour attendees had a question:“Will the port ever get cruise ships?”
This question wasn’t in Pate’s wheelhouse, but it is one that inevitably gets asked whenever the community engages in a port-soul-searching exercise. Why aren’t cruise ships unloading boatloads of tourists with pockets full of cash into the city’s downtown streets?
This question cuts to the philosophical heart of a question the city has been struggling with for years—What is the port’s purpose? How can the facility best be utilized?
The cruise ship question comes with subtext, too, and serves as shorthand for another question—do we want a working port, or will that muck up the urban dreamscape championed by downtown revivalists?
Mayor Robinson sees less of a conflict between these two paths and more of an opportunity for engineering something at the port that is uniquely Pensacola, something that nurtures niches and also allows for a pedestrian-friendly downtown that is connected to its waterfront.
“We are a maritime city, and we are going to have a port,” the mayor said. “We can make a port work and be able to walk downtown. We can do both things well.”