2017 was a banner year for business at Port Tampa Bay. Commerce was up by nearly every measure over the previous year. Nonetheless, the party’s over.
We’re talking about the annual State of the Port gala luncheon that port officials formerly threw to herald their accomplishments.
Last year, 8 On Your Side discovered the port spent $60,000 to treat 300 of its closest friends and public officials to a free feast of beef tenderloin, wild rice paysanne, creampuffs and cannoli.
Port Director Paul Anderson even paid his old pal, former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, $10,000 to deliver a speech replete with war stories from his days in the Bush administration.
Throw in lights, festoonery, fancy videos, a production crew and brochures and the port party added up to quite a swanky affair at public expense to deliver what could have been a simple printed report on port business.
Humbled by criticism about how it spends public money, this year the port set a new course for how it delivered its obligatory State of the Port Report.
“We heard you,” said the port’s Executive VP Raul Alfonso. “We also heard your comments that we’re not reaching a wider community, the people in our community, so we took that to heart and said, ‘let’s do something different.’”
Alfonso said, instead of throwing a luncheon gala for a select group of VIPs, the port printed 180,000 State of the Port brochures and paid $15,000 to insert most of them into the Tampa Bay Times and Tampa Bay Business Journal.
The port also posted it online as a way of telling a much broader public audience of taxpayers about what’s going on at the port.
“We took that first step and we think there should be more of that. More of letting our people know what their port is all about,” Alfonso said. “Remember, it’s their port.”
The net cost of this year’s State of the Port brochures and the insert advertising amounts to just under $35,000, or roughly half the cost of last year’s shindig.
After our report on the party last year, port officials came under fire for other freewheeling spending on food, liquor, sporting events and country club memberships for its top officials.
Alfonso says some of those business, entertainment and travel expenses are still necessary to recruit new business, but concedes the days of lavish spending on the public dime has largely ended in light of all the bad publicity and pressure from the governor, mayor and other critics.
“It’s difficult to find an organization that is perfect,” Alfonso said. “But I think we are very, very good. We’re getting better. We’re improving and once again, we’re listening. We’re listening to you. We’re listening to the people.”