Port Authority members heard last Wednesday from Florida Department of Transportation officials what they already knew.

Port Authority members heard last Wednesday from Florida Department of Transportation officials what they already knew.

Maintaining the Port of Port St. Joe’s designation as a port within the state’s Strategic Intermodal System (SIS) is vital to development of the port.

The collaboration with The St. Joe Company is a positive, bringing access to a deepwater bulkhead as well as the existing barge terminal bulkhead on the Intracoastal Waterway. The old Arizona Chemical site, with its natural gas wells and link to rail increases the port’s assets.

A FDOT grant of some $5 million that will aid in funding improvements to the Genessee Wyoming rail line to the port is a significant step forward.

But all of that would be undermined if the port’s designation as an “emerging” component of the SIS went away when the deadline arrives in the spring of next year.

“We don’t want to lose that (designation),” said Tommy Barfield, FDOT District 3 Secretary. “We don’t want to lose that traction.

“We’ve got to keep (the port) on the SIS. Without that you have no chance to compete for dollars.”

The dollars are the key. Seventy-five percent of discretionary funds appropriated each year by the Florida Legislature to the FDOT are earmarked for projects within the SIS system.

That is the pool of funding that will be critical as the port, the last of Florida’s 14 deepwater ports to see significant development, moves ahead with development of what is effectively a blank slate.

“There is a gem out there,” Barfield said. “It is just not being utilized.”

The Port of Port St. Joe was designated an “emerging” SIS component in 2009 based on potential projects that seemed poised to arrive. However, as the economy went south so too did the ability to secure adequate funding for those projects and they went away, port director Tommy Pitts said.

“We continue to be optimistic,” Pitts said port prospects. “The new relationship with St. Joe that provides long-desired access to the deepwater port as well as other efforts has us optimistic.”

The SIS designation had a four-year window which expires in March 2013. The “emerging” SIS designation is being phased out, FDOT staff indicated, but they would press for an application to extend the SIS designation for the Port of Port St. Joe by two to three years, with two years being the most likely.

“I think we can get there in three years,” said board chairman Leonard Costin, alluding to the tonnage and cargo requirements to be part of the SIS system. “I think we will be a shining light for the economy in the region.”

Board member Eugene Raffield questioned Barfield as to what might or might not apply as far as tonnage requirements.

He noted that though not part of the port – but located in the same waterway and basin as the barge bulkhead – Raffield Fisheries and Wood’s Fisheries ship out hundreds of containers and tons of seafood throughout the world.

“We are in that zone,” Raffield said. “From a rural economics view, I wish we could credit that to the port, find some unique credit for our port.”

Barfield said the Port Authority must tell a story detailing the progress made over the past four years and prospects for the future, particularly under the new dynamics brought by the collaboration between Port Authority and St. Joe Company.

“With St. Joe it is a whole new ball game,” Costin said.

Barfield added that a compelling story is essential for him to take to the FDOT main office to make the case for maintaining the SIS designation. He also noted that there may be some pushback from other ports, competing for SIS dollars.

“Anything we can do to show there are things going on,” Barfield said. “(The state) wants us to succeed. But they are looking at return on investment. That’s the world we live in. The governor doesn’t want Florida ports competing with each other; he wants them competing with Mobile.

“The major asset you have here is land. You need to focus on your assets. There is investment, momentum, you have a lot going on. We need to make a request from the Port Authority (for the SIS extension) and show what things have been done, are being done and what will be done to meet tonnage requirements.”

Raffield added that the dynamics will change further in 2014, when the widened Panama Canal, capable of accommodating the largest ocean-going vessels, is due to re-open.

“This is going to be huge,” Raffield said. “It is going to create opportunity where bigger ports are going to spin off business to the smaller ports.”

The bottom line, Barfield said, was that the District 3 staff would put forward the most compelling case possible to maintain the SIS designation for the Port of Port St. Joe.

“We have to have faith and I have faith, that this thing will take off,” Barfield said. “And when it does we can’t do things fast enough.”