The dynamics of developing the Port of Port St. Joe, port director Tommy Pitts told Port Authority members last week, have changed.

The dynamics of developing the Port of Port St. Joe, port director Tommy Pitts told Port Authority members last week, have changed.

The announcement the prior week that the St. Joe Company, collaborating with the Port Authority to develop the port, had entered into an agreement with Green Circle Bio Energy, Inc. that could lead to establishing a wood pellet shipping pipeline through the Port of Port St. Joe was, Pitts said, a “game changer.”

The announcement, in the form of a Letter of Intent (LOI) contemplating formal agreements down the road for providing product for Green Circle and a pellet plant along the former AN Railroad, could mean that within two or three years wood pellets being shipped through the port to overseas market.

“This has been going on over a year,” said St. Joe representative Dane Caldwell. “We are moving forward and trying to manage expectations.”

The key for the port is dredging, long a top priority that became No. 1 with a bullet with the St. Joe-Green Circle announcement. Any future involvement by the Port of Port St. Joe is contingent on achieving the maintenance dredging of the shipping channel to its federal-authorized depths.

“This not only helps the dredging cause but the rail cause,” Caldwell said, alluding to a Florida Department of Transportation grant for rehabilitation of the rail line between Port St. Joe and Chattahoochee.

Combine dredging with the rail, noted Port Authority chair Leonard Costin, and the link from Gulf of Mexico to I-10 is secure.

“This is definitely a step in the right direction,” Costin said.

The Port Authority voted unanimously to alter its wish list to the county RESTORE Committee, which is considering recommendations for spending any funds that might ultimately come to the county through the RESTORE Act, which divvies out BP fine monies among states impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

The Port Authority now lists $5 million for dredging as its top request with an equal amount for settling a mortgage with Capital City Bank moved to the second position.

The Green Circle announcement, Costin said, was of “more importance” than any disappointment with Gov. Rick Scott for vetoing $2 million from the state budget earmarked to address that mortgage on the Port Authority’s barge terminal parcel along the Intracoastal Waterway.

“The reaction to the veto was disappointment, but it does not change the mission,” Costin said.

The appropriation had been sought by Capital City Bank to pay down a portion of the $4 million mortgage on the parcel and had been supported by lawmakers in the region. The Port Authority, the city of Port St. Joe and County Commission chair Tan Smiley, among others, lent their support in a “Protect Our Port” campaign.

Port Authority attorney Tom Gibson said a hearing in the foreclosure proceedings had been postponed until July 17 while the state budget process played out.

Each side is seeking a summary judgment in its favor; the bank on the basis of a mortgage well in arrears and the Port Authority based on whether the land was properly mortgaged in the first place.

There were, board member Patrick Jones said, issues on both sides with no clear outcome.

“But I think I speak for the board in saying that there is not any interest on the board’s part not to pay our obligations,” Jones said.

He suggested it would be worthwhile to re-engage Capital City before July to see if there was room for an agreement.

Board member Eugene Raffield said any conversation with Capital City might need to be part of a broader conversation.

“The big thing that needs to happen is we need a quick answer on the dredging,” Raffield said. “Without dredging the channel it’s not going to work.”

Raffield said the dredging could have benefit for beach nourishment as there would be much quality sand brought up in the process. That made the Gulf County Tourist Development Council a stakeholder.

He suggested bringing all the parties – state, federal, legislative – together, including Capital City Bank which has a clear investment in the port to succeed, to help lobby the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on dredging.

The St. Joe Company and Pitts have been lobbying the Corps and state for more than a year. A FDOT grant is available as well as federal funds – the two combined total about $1.4 million.

Much if not all of that would be expended in permitting.

St. Joe and the Port Authority are exploring ways to leverage funds for local match to larger grants to facilitate completing the dredging.

“The best chance for the port, for the community, for the bank, to get what they want is the dredging,” Jones said. “The way we are going to get revenue is to dredge that channel.”

Pitts said the partners would pursue dredging on parallel planes – to pursue permitting and to pursue funding.

“We will pursue every dollar we can,” Pitts said.

Master Plan update

The Port Authority took the final step in formalizing its master plan update with a public workshop immediately following last week’s regular meeting.

“This a time of dynamic change in the effort to develop the port and we’d like for the public to be involved,” Pitts said.

The plan updates the 2008 master plan – each plan must be updated every five years, Pitts said – and essentially examines the next five years and beyond while accounting for changes, such as the increase of the planning area under the collaboration with St. Joe and the donation to the port of the former Arizona Chemical plan.

The planning area is now 300 acres, Pitts said.

As the last phase of the update, the public comment from last week’s meeting and any written comments received are reviewed and incorporated or not and the Port Authority will adopt the plan at its next regular meeting.

The plan will then be transmitted to the city of Port St. Joe for incorporation into the city’s comprehensive plan.

The lone public comment last week came from Cape resident Bob English who said he’d spent 25 years in planning for inland ports and had never undertaken the process for a deepwater port.

He praised Pitts, who did the work in-house with assistance from St. Joe, for his execution of the update.