Welcome to Gulf County.

Welcome to Gulf County.

Welcome to Port St. Joe.

Welcome to the Port of Port St. Joe.

Today representatives from the Colombian port city of Barranquilla will be visiting the area and enjoying time with community, port and economic development officials.

They’ll be getting a feel for the landscape around the port and the opportunities available.

The trip is a reciprocal journey following a recent Florida trade delegation to Colombia.

The folks from Barranquilla will have visited state officials in Tallahassee and made a visit to the Port of Panama City before venturing to this postcard paradise we call home.

We in Gulf County appreciate the time and effort required of you to take a glance at the Port of Port St. Joe.

Echoing the words of County Commissioner Warren Yeager during a recent meeting of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council, there is reason to be as optimistic about the future of the port as ever.

The collaboration agreement signed last year to develop a combined 300 acres of Port Authority and St. Joe Company property in the port planning area seems in hindsight the starting line for the steady drumbeat of optimism about the port.

Once the Port Authority had an invested and passionate private partner, one as interested in unlocking the port’s potential as port leaders have been for more than a decade, the race seemed to have truly begun.

Actually, let’s call it a marathon.

As an investment banker from the Bank of Montreal – the engagement of which by St. Joe provided another shot of adrenaline – this will all take time and there is no absence among port officials for staying the course for the long haul.

St. Joe, in addition to bringing to the table an international player in the investment in infrastructure, the Bank of Montreal, also worked to secure a Florida Department of Transportation grant for $5 million for rail line improvements along the Genesse Wyoming line.

One end of that rail line is in Chattahoochee for movement of goods and people north, west and east; the other end is on the old Arizona Chemical property site that is now unencumbered in port hands.

Not a bad asset to have in the back pocket.

The FDOT has also championed the Port of Port St. Joe, providing a critical extension that keeps the port in the Strategic Intermodal System (SIS), a system that receives the lion’s share of FDOT discretionary funding.

The department certainly could have pulled the plug, but representatives, reflecting the governor’s passion for ports as job creators, bent over backwards to make sure the SIS designation remained in place to allow the port more time and space to lure customers.

The Florida Department of Economic Development also had been a partner, providing funding and expertise to update the port master plan to reflect the addition in lands and the collaborative agreement with St. Joe.

The Florida Ports Council, while acknowledging work to be done, noted the significant changes over the past 18 months in its annual report on Florida’s deepwater ports.

Did we mention that, friends from Barranquilla? This is a deepwater port, authorized for a depth of 35 feet in the shipping channel and one of just 15 such ports in Florida.

That shipping channel has become another source of recent good news.

Port of Port St. Joe officials just last week learned that a grant was available to begin the preliminary engineering and permitting for dredging of the deepwater channel, seen as one of two major keys to unlocking the port’s potential.

The other lock may be opened soon, depending on the governor’s veto pen.

The state budget includes funding to bring a mortgage on a parcel of port land current and provide additional breathing room for the port in its hunt for customers and tenants.

That one even carries a very public campaign to “Protect Our Port.”

As one Port Authority member noted last week, it would be hard to underestimate what the funding for dredging and the mortgage would mean for the port.

There is also Eastern Shipbuilding, paying its lease for bulkhead space on the deepwater old mill site, booming with business and heading to Port St. Joe when its wharf space in Bay County is filled to capacity.

In other words, there is a lot happening and we are certainly glad you folks from Colombia have given us a chance to show off a bit.

But we can also learn.

As said by Tom Gibson – and a shout out to Gibson for joining the trade delegation to Colombia on his dime and Marina Pennington, the city’s planning consultant, who plowed considerable groundwork in her homeland prior to that Florida visit – your Colombian ports share many of the challenges facing Port St. Joe and have made them work.

According to Gibson, you have done an outstanding job of marrying the industry of a diverse operational port with a tourist outpost with fine beaches and plenty of sun.

You have overcome those challenges, with public and private partnerships, and flourish today and when the newly-widened Panama Canal opens next year, you will be in a position to benefit.

As will the Port of Port St. Joe, which as the crow flies is one of the closest Florida ports to the Canal Zone.

So whether there is any actual deal that comes out of your visit, we have much to learn from you while we show you our slice of heaven.

That you took the time to visit is another feather of optimism in what has been a quiver full over the past 18 months.

As we like to say, sit a spell, enjoy the waters and beaches that lure so many of us to put down roots, having found home.

Welcome to Gulf County; we are tickled to have you.