The Port St. Joe Port Authority and Board of County Commissioners are reportedly close to an interlocal agreement.

 

A road will take them; local officials are trying for a firm handle on where and how far.

The Port St. Joe Port Authority and Board of County Commissioners are reportedly close to an interlocal agreement that will hitch another wagon to development at the Port of Port St. Joe.

The agreement evolved from an effort to construct a road linking the former Arizona Chemical site to the shipping bulkhead on the old paper mill site.

And while the agreement is no longer a straightline factor for the road, based on discussion during a special Port Authority meeting Tuesday, the interlocal agreement will help frame the port development discussion moving forward.

The road is going in, said Warren Yeager, executive director of the county Economic Development Coalition.

Permits are in hand, he added.

And a licensing agreement between the St. Joe Company, which owns the land over which the road will travel as well as the bulkhead, and the Board of County Commissioners, should be taken up during Tuesday’s regular BOCC meeting, county attorney Jeremy Novak said.

Once the agreement is in place, the county will build the road, using dollars from one of several possible infrastructure or economic development funds.

“We have a way forward on the road,” Yeager said.

That will get the one customer the Port Authority, and St. Joe, has to the paper mill site bulkhead.

But as has been the case for years, Port Authority efforts operate with a distinct dichotomy; every piece of good news, every bit of forward momentum, arrives on a bracing headwind.

The original goal of the interlocal agreement between BOCC and Port Authority was to facilitate the building of the road using already committed funds from the Florida Ports Council.

However, St. Joe was unwilling to grant an easement for the life of the road, as would be attached to the use of those public dollars, and declined the option to use the funds.

That money has now been diverted to another use by the Florida Department of Transportation.

“That was a deal-killer,” said Port Authority attorney Tom Gibson. “That’s the reason the ports council money went away; St. Joe told them they don’t need it.”

Novak said the language in the interlocal would be tweaked to reflect that reality, with the goal of presenting the document to the board for approval Tuesday.

The conversations with individual commissioners, Novak said, had been positive in the cause of ensuring port development and job growth.

“Commissioners are encouraged,” Novak said, adding that the interlocal agreement was aimed at “getting out there and getting (the road) done. The immediate goal is that road.”

But, Novak added, commissioners were eager to understand the direction of port development.

And, in turn, Port Authority board members expressed frustration with port activity, or in some cases in-activity, occurring beyond their purview or control.

For example, the road.

Port board member Eugene Raffield had secured funding for the road from the Florida Ports Council and two months ago a plan was presented during a port meeting that, using those funds, would have the road built by now.

But the discussion never went anywhere with St. Joe.

Additionally, the state budget recently approved included some $6 million for a dry dock and dredging of the turning basin the shipping channel that the county, not Port Authority, worked on and lobbied for on behalf of Eastern Shipbuilding.

On Tuesday, there was a recognition that communication between the boards should improve, the interlocal agreement will help, if for no other reason than to assist what Yeager called “the elephant in the room” during port discussions for years.

“St. Joe’s driving that train as far as access and uses” on the former paper mill site, Novak said.

St. Joe owns the land on which any port will be developed and company representatives, as recently as last week’s Port Authority, consistently express optimism about port prospects.

But given the hurdles in just getting a road for the only port tenant, with contracts with the Port Authority and St. Joe, there was exasperation regarding exactly what St. Joe’s plans are.

“Nothing is going to get done until they decide what they want to do,” said Port Authority chair Guerry Magidson, who inserted into the discussion another critical aspect for port development.

Particularly, as numerous potential funding sources for port development are being injected into the equation, from Triumph Gulf Coast to increases in funding for Florida ports.

Namely, that Triumph funds, state port funding, whatever public funding, is not accessible to a private company, but will only flow through a public entity; for port funding that specifically means an independent Port Authority.

On the Triumph side of the equation, another driver for an interlocal agreement is the strength in numbers the county and Port Authority would realize by applying jointly for funding.

But, the bottom line, Tuesday’s special meeting of the Port Authority, underscored, is getting the parties, including St. Joe, city, county and Florida Ports Council, together to lay out, as Raffield put it, “what is at stake here.”

“The elephant in the room has always been the owner of that (port coastal) property,” Yeager said. “You can not force a property owner.

“If they want to develop it in a certain way we are going to do what we can to help them for economic development.”

Raffield added, “I am for jobs. Everybody is a little frustrated but I don’t want to go in the wrong direction out of frustration.

“I’m very optimistic about where we are compared to where we were four years ago because there is a lot fixing to happen. But for us to do our job we need to know what our job is.”

 

 

 

 

 

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