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Port Miami wants free-trade zones throughout county

Any warehouse in northern Miami-Dade County could quickly free itself from import tariffs under a proposal by Port Miami allowing it to establish dozens of free-trade zones.

Port officials said the plan, expected to be approved this summer, would expand Miami-Dade’s current foreign-trade zones to a more flexible approval process that would make it easier for individual companies to create duty-free warehouses. Those designations allow exporters to ship goods without paying U.S. import taxes provided the items are heading from one foreign country to another.

“It’s going to be a big change for the community,” said Kevin Lynskey, assistant director for business initiatives at the port, which is applying for the foreign-trade license on behalf of Miami-Dade County. “It’s surprising we don’t have more foreign trade zones here.”

The port’s initiative could prove lucrative: While Washington doesn’t require significant fees for setting up individual trade zones, license holders like the port typically charge thousands of dollars to establish them for businesses.

The plan also would mean a new player in South Florida’s small roster of trade-zone administrators, which have yielded relatively few spin-off zones.

Port Everglades has a foreign-trade zone, a Homestead nonprofit administers a free-trade zone in southern Dade, and the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce administers one for a Doral warehouse. Both Miami-Dade groups have used their authority to arrange for customized zones at individual companies, including Sysco Foods and DHL in Medley.

Port director Bill Johnson announced the free-trade venture at a Brookings Institution conference on Miami-Dade’s trade industry. Held at Miami International Airport, the forum focused on the region’s enviable ties to Latin America’s economies at a time of slow domestic growth.

But even with cargo coming in and out of local ports, the region’s economy could benefit more from its trade industry if more than a tiny fraction of the goods were used to actually produce things in South Florida, said Brookings fellow Amy Liu.

“This is a region that has a very small share of its economy tied to goods and services,” Liu told the panel. “You are shipping everybody else’s goods around the world.”

Foreign-trade zones mostly benefit companies doing exactly that, because cargo that winds up in the United States is subject to import tariffs. By creating more duty-free zones, Port Miami hopes to make it easier for cargo companies to operate in Miami-Dade and use the port’s facilities.

Port officials say their license will speed the duty-free approval process from a year to a month for Miami-Dade companies. The port’s license would apply to any business located north of Southwest Eighth Street and would automatically create a foreign-trade zone at the port itself and at two Florida East Coast Railway yards that would be connected to the port.

It’s unclear how different the port’s duty-free offerings will be from the existing ones. The Chamber of Commerce’s license has been extended to a warehouse complex in Doral known as the Miami Free Trade Zone, as well as a special zone for Sysco Food’s Medley warehouses, a marine supplier in Miami and a third operation in Miami. Miami-Dade’s application said the Homestead free zone would be folded into the port’s zone if approved in Washington.

A chamber official Monday said there shouldn’t be much of a difference between its program and the port’s.

“It’s going to be the same thing,” said Liane Ventura, the chamber vice president who oversees the foreign-trade license.

While the federal agency that administers the program does expect to speed approvals under the new program that would include the port, Ventura said the process has generally been getting more efficient under the Obama administration.

The port’s approval “process may improve just like our process will improve,” Ventura said.