Work is underway to craft a public/private partnership agreement between the Board of County Commissioners and the St. Joe Company.

County attorney Jeremy Novak told commissioners during Tuesday’s regular monthly meeting that work was underway to craft “general umbrella” language on a partnership agreement that would facilitate a number of projects to foster economic development.

In the short term, the priority would be construction of a road connecting Port St. Joe Port Authority property, the former Arizona Chemical site, to the former paper mill site bulkhead, which is in St. Joe Company ownership.

The partnership would also pave the way for access to the portion of the bulkhead being leased by Eastern Shipbuilding.

But, back up for a broader view, and the partnership agreement will be crucial if the county is to fully leverage the tens of millions of dollars in oil spill fine money earmarked for the county that should begin flowing later this year.

Legislation pertaining to the funding of Triumph Gulf Coast, a non-profit board established by the Florida Legislature to oversee the disbursement of the largest chunk of fine money stemming out of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, is on Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

Scott’s window for either signing the bill or vetoing closes within the week and if signed, the bill would mean, this year alone, $15 million for Gulf County with an eventual payout over $60 million over 15 years.

All indications are that the governor will sign the legislation, unanimously approved by both chambers of the Legislature, said Warren Yeager, executive director of the county Economic Development Coalition.

“All our contacts indicate we are in good shape,” Yeager said.

The set percentages for each county, he added, soak up just 40 percent of the roughly $1.5 billion Triumph pot and Yeager said the county “should not lose sight of that other 60 percent.”

County economic development officials have long contended that fully leveraging those funds, at least for Gulf County, would hinge in significant measure on a public/private partnership with the St. Joe Company, which owns much of the key land required to, for example, fully unlock the port.

The Port St. Joe Port Authority, which has a collaboration agreement with St. Joe on port development, has been pushing for a solution to access for its tenant, a wood-chip shipper, to the paper mill site bulkhead.

That access can only happen over St. Joe land, but public dollars could pay for the road should St. Joe, as an example, convey the roadbed or provide an easement to the county or Port Authority.

“In the immediate is a plan to put in a road to the bulkhead, and to also provide access to the Eastern portion of the bulkhead,” said deputy county administrator Michael Hammond.

Included in the state budget, which is also on Scott’s desk and may be in more peril of a veto than Triumph legislation, is $6 million for a dry-dock and dredging in the turning basin to accommodate Eastern expansion plans into Gulf County.

Also included in the budget is some $6 million for improvements to the rail line linking the port to point north.

“These are things that will bring quality high-paying jobs,” Hammond added.

In short, a public/private partnership would provide the framework for St. Joe Company officials to discuss directly and openly with the Board of County Commissioners future projects of joint interest, much in the same way St. Joe currently operates with the Port Authority.

Eugene Raffield, a Port Authority board member, said such agreements should be in place with the county and the city of Port St. Joe, since the port is within city limits.

He added that his main concern is getting the Port Authority’s tenant what they need to be successful.

Fifth penny bed tax

The other primary piece of business completed Tuesday was formal adoption to move forward on using the fifth penny in Tourist Development Council bed tax collections, established for parks and recreation, to fund renovation and expansion of Port St. Joe’s 10th Street ballpark.

The fifth penny was implemented at a time when the county and city were still eyeing a sports complex near Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf.

However, that vision has been sharpened by fiscal reality and the focus is now on the 10th Street complex, which has long been in need of major upgrades.

The goal is to create an expanded complex, with softball, baseball and pickleball courts, as a starting point, with the complex potentially spanning from Eighth Street to 16th Street.

Commissioner Sandy Quinn, Jr., who first proposed the concept, motioned, and was unanimously supported, to freeze all disbursements from the fifth penny immediately and for the Tourist Development Council to draft a strategic plan, with budget and phased approach, for the park.

The aim is to earmark at least $1 million in fifth-penny revenue over the next two years to help fund the ballparks.

In addition, the city and county will maximize applications for state parks and recreation grants and additional funding streams.

Commissioner Freddie Whitfield supported the motion but also cautioned commissioners to ensure they followed the ordinance and state law governing the fifth penny and suggested that the focus on just one park was flawed given disrepair in other parks.

And Alyson Gerlach with the TDC advisory board urged commissioners not to roll back the progress the TDC has made in recent years on a park that may or may not be an attraction to visitors from beyond the county.

County administrator Don Butler said staff would come back next month with a list of recommended cuts to the TDC budget necessitated by freezing the fifth penny.

Two commissioners noted that the cuts could come from the hundreds of thousands of dollars paid over the past few years to a consultant as well as marketing dollars that could likely be saved.