In an effort to revitalize the tourism industry and commerce, government and business officials in Ponce, Puerto Rico's third largest city, have embarked on a $45 million expansion program at the Port of Ponce. Their goal is to offer a port that will rival San Juan's by 1988, according to Jose S. Gonzalez, port director.

The program includes reconstruction of three badly deteriorated piers ($7.9 million); expansion of two other piers to double-docking capability for two 600-foot vessels ($10.6 million); and the construction of a 700-foot berthing facility for two cruise ships, along with a passenger terminal ($9 million). The port will also be dredged from its current depth of 30 feet to about 40 feet. The remainder of the funds will be used to develop a major free trade zone on a 250-acre plot made available by the municipality.

Most of the project is being financed through a bond issue, Gonzalez reported. The Port of Ponce is the only facility in Puerto Rico that is owned and managed by a municipal government rather than by the Commonwealth's Ports Authority.

To lure cruise lines, the port is constructing a modem tourism pier, with restaurants and shops along the waterfront. An existing building is being converted to a full-service passenger terminal, capable of handling about 800 people. Adjacent buildings are being converted for other facilities and services, including a reception lounge; cafeteria/­restaurant; first aid station; car rental; and limousine and passenger bus service; and parking. A "mini-train" will transport passengers to the terminal, and a shipyard will be built to handle minor repairs.

Dominican Ferries Puerto Rico Inc. plans to begin ferry service between Ponce and Venezuela via Martinique or Guadaloup when the project is completed.

Air service has been a major obstacle in attracting cruise lines, but an $11 million expansion of the Mercedita Airport in Ponce will help overcome that, Gonzalez said. The project will enable the landing of 727s and open the door to international flights within a year-and-a-half. Currently, Ponce is only accessible via an 80-minute drive from San Juan International Airport, or a short air commuter trip.

According to Gonzalez, Ponce has a great deal to offer cruise passengers. "It is rich in history, and is the home of the Ponce Art Museum, site of one of the largest and most valuable collections of Renaissance Art," he said. Plaza del Caribe, a $50 million shopping complex currently under construction in the city's outskirts, will be a major shopping attraction.

Gonzalez believes that the expansion project will be competitive as a home port.

"One advantage we have over San Juan is our depth," he said. "They have eliminated their plans to dredge their port from its current 32 feet so we will be able to receive larger ships. Our per passenger charge is also about 50 percent lower than San Juan's."

Gonzalez added that Ponce's more southern location reduces cruising time to the deep Caribbean.