How the Miami River supports a multibillion-dollar marine industry
Like the Arch of Swords at a naval wedding, eight bascule bridges along the Miami River rise in succession as the Capt. Babun heads toward Biscayne Bay.
While motorists may gnash their teeth whenever the drawbridge goes up downtown, those on the river below know it is vital to their business — and helps a multitude of other local businesses from paint and parts suppliers to hotels and restaurants stay afloat.
The Miami River supports a multibillion-dollar marine industry of tugs, cargo ships, sports fishermen and pleasure craft owners. The most recent survey, taken 12 years ago by the South Florida Water Management District, shows those businesses “generated a $2.9 billion output, $1.5 billion in income, 24,000 related jobs and $136 million in tax revenues to the state of Florida.” A tour of the Miami River’s working community indicates the financial impact of those marine industries is destined to increase in the immediate future as several companies upgrade their facilities, concentrate on efficiency and add more employees.
The journey begins where the Miami River abuts the South Florida Water Management District’s salinity dam, which blocks the salty river from going into the Everglades. Capt. Rodolfo Gonzalez of the Miami River Towing Company maneuvers the Capt. Babun through a hairpin turn so that the tugboat faces east.
To the tug’s starboard, on the south side of the river near Miami International Airport, the Betty K Line loads its freighters. The cargo includes dented automobiles no longer suitable to drive, whose parts can be sold in the Bahamas for more than double the price paid at a salvage auction, says Ron G. Adams, general manager for Betty K Agencies (USA). The hold also contains appliances and household goods bought in bulk from the nation’s busiest Walmart in Doral, Adams says.
Betty K Agencies, with annual revenues of
$2.3 million, provides break bulk shipping — for goods not in shipping containers — to its customers in the Bahamas and this year plans to expand into the Turks and Caicos with container shipping. In June, the company rented additional space and now operates on either side of the Booby Trap strip club. Plans call for hiring 16 more people, bringing the total number of employees to 34.
Although the parent company was founded in the Bahamas in 1920 to ship lumber to Nassau, the Miami branch opened in 2003 and serves individuals to mega developers.
“Betty K is not big corporate America. Not many places are you going to get the president of the company to come down and shake your hand,” Adams says, emphasizing the company’s mom-and-pop approach to customer service. No shipment is too small or too big he says.
His company specializes in transporting out-sized cargo that other carriers might reject. In one instance, the developers of the Albany Marina Residences in Cable Beach hired his company to ship 75-foot acrylic pool liners destined for the balconies of units overlooking the water.
Traveling at a speed of 3.6 knots, Capt. Gonzalez soon advances to Antillean Marine Shipping Corp.’s terminal on the north side of the river. On any given day, the tug could be pulling or pushing one of Antillean Marine’s five freighters to Biscayne Bay, where the ship will continue its journey to Hispaniola, laden with containers filled with food, clothing and other necessities. The company also takes a paternal interest in the countries it serves. Antillean coordinated with the United Nations to assist Haiti after the devastating 2010 earthquake, and helped with relief efforts after Hurricane Matthew.
As the most powerful tugboat in the Antillean Marine fleet, the Capt. Babun boasts a 1,450-horsepower engine, a length of 62 feet and a height of 24 feet, rendering it too tall to safely pass under the Brickell Avenue Bridge when closed. The tugboat is symbolic of the evolution of the flourishing marine industries that line the Miami River, a federal navigable waterway that flows 5.5 miles to Biscayne Bay. A total of 10 drawbridges line the working river, with clearance ranging from 12 to 35 feet. The Brickell Avenue bridge has a clearance of 24 feet. Capt. Gonzalez explains that a cushion of at least two feet is needed to safely maneuver under the bridge. Depending on tides and the height of the vessel, not all drawbridges need to be raised when the tugboat motors below.
Rather than continue to rely upon the schedule of third-party towing companies, Antillean Marine added tugboat services to its operations in April of last year. The tugboats give the company a degree of control over its schedule, which is also subject to the changing tides and the occasional drawbridge delay. The successful opening of a succession of bridges ensures the continued prosperity for both the shipping company and the people it serves. The same holds true for many of the two dozen other marinas and shipyards that rely upon the river for their livelihood.
In an “all boats rise with the tide” scenario, the businesses working the navigable river are flourishing at the same time downtown Miami is experiencing a renaissance with the addition of taller, sleeker hotels and condos, and an increased variety of restaurant and shopping destinations.
“The river really is a reflection of the transformation of the city as a whole,” says Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, who has maintained a keen interest in the Miami River since the early 1990s, when she worked with a grand jury to clean up pollution and corruption on the waterway.
“It’s a working river, but now it’s seen almost like a luxury,” says Fernández Rundle, who also sits on the Miami River Commission, a volunteer organization that oversees policy plans for the waterway. “And then you have the luxurious level of growth in our community that is looking at the river as more playful and more like other cities that use the river as a place of enjoyment.”
The increased interest and activity along the river comes at a price. The interests of those on land appear headed for collision with those who ply the river. Some lawmakers are exploring the possibility of more restrictions on the bridge’s hours of operation.
Already the Brickell Avenue bridge operates under a weekday curfew from 7:35 to 8:59 a.m., 12:05 to 12:59 p.m., and 4:35 to 5:59 p.m., except on federal holidays. The state owns the Brickell Avenue bridge. The Florida Department of Transportation recommends an extension of half an hour to the morning and evening curfew.
The U.S. Coast Guard, which enforces federal law on the waterway, says an extended curfew would exacerbate congestion on the river. According to a May 30 report, the USCG said a 30-minute extension would create a bottleneck that would delay scores of boats, resulting in more bridge openings, with more boats going through at each subsequent opening and the bridge being up longer.
“It causes a safety issue,” says Mark Bailey, executive director of the Miami River Marine Group, a trade association that advocates on behalf of the shipping terminals, cargo carriers, tugboat operators, construction companies, boatyards and marinas that comprise the river’s marine industries. “If you’ve got bridges that are closed, you’ve got vessels that are stacked up.”
Congestion increases the potential for collision. That’s why cargo ships and yachts don’t travel in convoys along the river. The ships cost at least $10 million each. Superyachts can run as much as $275 million.
The Miami River Commission maintains extending the curfew will only make things worse for boaters while not improving conditions for commuters.
“We have a traffic jam problem in the city of Miami,” commission chairman Horacio Stuart Aguirre says. “To blame the traffic on the bridge openings and to say that alone is the causal factor is totally inaccurate. You could lock them down, weld them shut, ask God Almighty to use His infinite power to freeze them, and nobody will know that there were no bridge openings.”
Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who also chairs the Miami Downtown Development Authority, believes a half-hour extension is reasonable. “None of these businesses that are being serviced by these boats are on such a time schedule that if they don’t make it within that half an hour their business is in jeopardy,” Russell says. “If I’m going up the river to get a propeller repaired, whether I’m 30 minutes late or not doesn’t mean I’m not going to get the business and doesn’t mean my entire schedule is turned upside down.”
Although sympathetic to the marine community, Russell holds that the timing of the bridge openings can devastate the downtown.
“The river businesses are clearly a crucial part of our community,” he says. “It’s a great neighborhood and a culture of Old Miami that needs to remain and needs to be recognized and respected.” However, he adds, “Clearly opening that bridge at rush hour is crippling an entire community of business, commuters, restaurateurs, retail.”
Despite all good intentions, the bridge can still open during the rush hour, even if the curfew is extended another 30 minutes. Federal law mandates that the bridge must open on demand — providing it is safe to do so — for a variety of vessels, including those owned by the U.S. government, tugboats, tugs with tows and any watercraft in distress where delay would endanger life or property.
The Coast Guard studied the proposed curfew and found on-demand openings continued even during existing curfew hours. In a report release on May 30, the USCG noted the Brickell Avenue bridge opened 56 times during curfew in the last four months of 2015. A total of 51 openings, or more than 91 percent, were due to exempt vessels.
As the cargo companies on the Miami River increase the size of their fleets and shipyards increase the size of the yachts they service, more on-demand openings are inevitable. Tugs guide the cargo ships to the river terminals, and the larger yachts typically arrive by tug to ensure safe delivery. The cargo ships move at high tide and the yachts move at slack tide, when the current is at its calmest. It takes roughly two hours to traverse the river, leaving a small window in which to complete the journey.
On the Capt. Babun’s port side, where the river forks, Hurricane Cove occupies 10 acres, making it the largest marina and boatyard on the river.
A do-it-yourself boatyard, Hurricane Cove is permitted for 150 vessels, and at any given time more than 100 private contractors are at work there, in addition to the facility’s 15 employees, says Hurricane Cove General Manager John Michael Cornell. His clients own anything from 20-foot center console boats to 85-foot motor yachts. The majority arrive under their own power, without a tugboat to guide them. If they are too tall to pass under the closed bridges, they are subject to the curfew.
Cornell is adamant that extending the curfew would erode his business. “If you shrink our working day to eliminate another hour out of our day, that in turn means maybe we couldn’t get to a vessel for another week and a half.”
Tucked into the south fork of the river is Apex Marine Repair Miami. Apex Vice President Robert Mac Keen is pragmatic about the proposed curfew extension. “If they need to expand the hours, I understand why,” he says. “An extra hour is an extra hour I can’t move a boat through there. We would find a way to work around it. We would change our hours to receive the boats.”
The tumult over a curfew change comes just two years after Apex moved from Fort Lauderdale to its current location. Apex is a luxury yacht boatyard and marina, with exclusive rights to sell Tiara yachts and Pursuit Boats in Miami. The company has locations in Stuart and Pompano Beach, with a showroom in Coconut Grove. The Miami River property currently boasts annual revenues of roughly $4.5 million and supports 18 employees. The workforce should double by the end of the year, when Apex installs a new travel lift that can accommodate 140-foot yachts, Mac Keen says.
“That takes us into a new class of customer, perhaps into a market not serviced in Miami,” he says, explaining that Miami is returning to its glory days when it was a regular port of the celebrities of last century. “Downtown Miami’s really popular again,” he says. “The cultural interest in Miami brings the people, which brings the boats, and the revenue.”
RMK Merrill-Stevens, the grand-daddy of Miami’s marine industry, also is undergoing an upgrade to its shipyard, located on six acres on both sides of the river. The north side, which sheltered a U.S. Navy submarine during World War II, is being “reconfigured from a 1940s-era ship lift to a modern, multimillion-dollar facility for yachts,” says Stan Crooks, business development manager for RMK Merrill-Stevens.
The renovations cost an estimated $18 million and will enable the company to service 240-foot superyachts, as many as 10 at a time, Crooks says. Once renovations are complete, Crooks expects an increased demand that will necessitate doubling the workforce from an existing 22 employees to 44 by March of next year. Many of the new employees will be skilled high-wage earners, such as certified welders and electricians.
In addition to providing employment on-site, RMK Merrill-Stevens caters to a clientele with money to spend.
“Typically, those 10 yachts will have a crew of eight and that means money for Miami,” Crooks says. “They will be onsite every day in Miami, spending money. The chef will be buying all the produce, liquor, wine and cigars, all the things that you would have in five-star amenities. We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars just for provisioning.”
Then there’s the cost of lodging for the crew, which often stays on the yacht but occasionally may need hotel rooms or extended-stay housing. Local marine supply companies also benefit. RMK Merrill-Stevens charges upward of $1 million to repaint a 150-foot yacht and $100,000 for an annual haul out, Crooks says. All the work and design devoted to the yachts is sophisticated and costly, from the upholstery to the electrical wiring, which can include a variety of voltages, depending on what needs to be powered, from the ice maker to the microwave to the flat-screen TV.
BRIDGE DELAYS’ IMPACT
Crooks frets that bridge delays will translate to loss of dollars.
“The river is the front door of trade,” he says. “If there is any delay to come up this river, it has profound impacts across the board for the entire city, as far as incomes and money being spent.”
Bridge delays could prompt some yachtsmen to head north rather than risk damage by sailing in at night or during a rushing current: “They might just say, Stan, this is an inconvenience. I don’t have time for this delay. I’m just going to take my business elsewhere.”
It’s a serious concern for RMK Merrill-Stevens, Apex, Hurricane Cove, Antillean and Betty K.
But it’s smooth sailing for the Capt. Babun. Shortly after noon on a sunny day in late June, Captain Gonzalez signals his approach to the westernmost drawbridge at NW 27th Avenue with a blast of his horn. Then he announces his intention to head out to sea. He picks up the hand-held mic and contacts the bridge tender over Channel 9. The bridge opens without delay.