Thursday, May 23, 2024

From the Magazine: Sea Worthy

Michael Meekins couldn’t have joined the Port of Palm Beach at a more fraught time. It was April of 2020 when Meekins came aboard as the port’s director of business development. Like the rest of us, he watched as a virus raged, an economy tanked, and all passenger cruise ships, which had yielded a steady source of revenue for the port, were moored for the foreseeable future. He was soon to appreciate the importance of the term essential business.

“We didn’t skip a beat,” he recalls. “We worked closely with our tenants to ensure that they kept cargo moving despite the challenges that arose during the pandemic. The fact that we were primarily an export port, rather than an import port, means the people in the Caribbean are dependent on us—all sorts of cargo goes into the Caribbean, including medical supplies, which were significantly needed during the pandemic.” (Tropical Shipping, the port’s largest tenant, exports to 30 Caribbean islands; approximately 60 percent of the food consumed in the Bahamas is sent through the port.)

“We assisted our tenants with the vaccination process by scheduling the health department to come out,” Meekins adds. “While the pandemic did cause a slight dip of about 2 percent from 2019 to 2020 in the number of containers that moved through the port, the district continued to maintain the port’s facilities and invest in capital projects. That’s without levying any taxes, which the port has not done in 50 years.”

In the past four years, the Port of Palm Beach has not only returned to pre-pandemic levels of output—it has surpassed them. In January, a study from the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council reported that the ports in the state experienced record-high cargo growth in 2023 for the second year in a row.

As Florida’s fourth-busiest container port, the Port of Palm Beach saw an 11 percent increase in net operating revenue for fiscal year 2023. And this past February, for the first time in more than a decade, every berth in the port was occupied. The port’s cruise ship, Margaritaville at Sea Paradise, enjoyed a 183-percent increase in passenger traffic from 2022 to 2023, a period that saw numerous renovations to the two-night, Jimmy Buffett-themed vessel, including a pickleball court and a dueling piano bar.

Much of this growth has occurred under Meekins’ management. He accepted the port’s executive director position in March 2023, a promotion he describes as all-encompassing. “Taking on this responsibility, the thing I first noticed was, it becomes a big part of your life,” he says. “It is, 24 hours a day, a part of who you are. I’m fortunate that my wonderful wife is completely understanding of the time and effort this position requires. As far as the job, it has required me to work with the board and the staff in taking a more holistic approach to understanding all of the port’s operations.”

Meekins’ tenure has not been without its hiccups. In his first year on the job, he narrowly survived two efforts by two of the port’s commissioners to terminate him for cause, with the other three commissioners voting in the majority to retain him. In contentious commission meetings, the “nay” voters cited issues such as overspending and questionable hiring practices.

Publicly, Meekins has remained mum on these criticisms, telling Boca, “here at the Port of Palm Beach, business is going on as usual. My main focus remains on ensuring the growth of our port, fostering strong tenant relationships and actively supporting our local communities.

“I’m always working to work with the commissioners as best I can,” he adds. “Everybody is always looking to improve, including myself. I’m not perfect by any means, but every day I come in and give 100 percent.”

Meekins continues to lean in to the port’s robust economic numbers as a testament to his leadership. He expresses his dedication to the business in more prosaic ways, too; as a resident of Merritt Island, his commute spans about four hours daily—ever more reason for him to cherish his downtime.

“We have three boys and one girl, all grown, and all out of the house,” he says. “We are empty nesters, but we do get together quite often for Sunday dinners with all of the kids, and that’s what I enjoy the most in my time off. I couldn’t be happier with my wife—and she’s a NASA engineer, so she wins most of the arguments.”

This article is from the April 2024 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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