There has emerged a Plan B regarding Triumph funding after all.
Discussions in the past two weeks have expanded the focus at the Port of Port St. Joe beyond a dry dock for Eastern Shipbuilding to a renewal of the effort to dredge the federally-authorized shipping channel.
County and Port St. Joe Port Authority officials have met over the past two weeks with counterparts at the St. Joe Company and the Florida Department of Transportation as well as Triumph Gulf Coast staff.
From those discussions has emerged a strategy that as the focus remains on the dry dock, dredging the shipping channel provides a potential fallback position for opening the port to development.
“We are working on all kinds of things related to the port,” said Warren Yeager, Executive Director of the Economic Development Coalition. “There is an opportunity there.
“I think there is a feeling that everybody is trying to move in the same direction.”
The dry dock project, for which the county is seeking some $28 million, is in the application review phase within Triumph Gulf Coast, the non-profit established to distribute more than $1 billion within eight Northwest Florida counties over 15 years.
The county’s projected share of that over the 15 years tops $60 million.
The dry dock was the priority of the Board of County Commissioners, which sought and received support from all other governing bodies in the county.
Triumph consideration puts an emphasis on projects approved by a county commission; the BOCC was focused on the dry dock.
Less than two months ago county officials told the Port Authority board there was no Plan B.
Questions remain about the project as Triumph staff continues it review.
The likelihood, Port Authority chair Guerry Magidson said, is additional questions from Triumph staff and possible modifications to the project.
“The meetings went well,” Yeager said, adding the county is waiting a decision from Triumph.
The full Triumph board meets next week.
Emerging from those meetings, participants said, were positive comments from Triumph and St. Joe about moving forward, depending on the outcome of the Triumph decision on the dry dock project, concerning applying for dollars to dredge the shipping channel.
The Port Authority currently holds state and federal permits to dredge the shipping channel to the authorized depth of 35-feet, with an additional two feet around the turning basin.
The Port Authority has also long had an agreement for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to undertake the project once funding was secured.
Using a $1 million grant from the Florida Department of Transportation, the Port Authority has also completed engineering for the infrastructure required to handle what would be the moving of some 5 million cubic yards of spoil.
The cost estimate for the dredging is $33 million, with another $14-$15 million for construction of spoil site infrastructure, primarily an extensive berm system.
Magidson said the Port Authority is working with the Army Corps on the dredging project with a goal of reducing costs.
To dredge the channel to 30-feet or 32-feet in depth, with an additional foot around the turning basin, has been considered and the Magidson said the wait is on figures back from the Corps on cost reduction.
Magidson said research indicates 80 percent of shipping vessels would still be able to access the port.
“That would bring down the costs of the berms and we would only need to use one spoil site,” Magidson said.
The Tier 1 site, the former paper mill site, would not be needed as the Tier 2 site, along the Intracoastal Canal, would be sufficient, he added.
“A couple of years down the road, once ships are coming in and the tonnage is going up, we can come back and dredge to the authorized depth,” Magidson said.
Any Triumph funding that would be sought would be matched with what is hoped would be a state appropriation.
Five years ago, the state earmarked $20 million for dredging; that money has been used elsewhere but FDOT officials pledged the money would be available if and when needed.
The Port Authority is working with the FDOT and Florida Ports Council on potential paths forward.
Also, participants in the discussions said FDOT District III Director Phillip Gainer said he would recommend the state release some $6 million earmarked at least five years ago for repairs to the rail line connecting the port to points north.
St. Joe and Genesee Wyoming have pledged to match that funding and St. Joe officials are eager to move ahead on the rail work, Magidson said.
“With the rail work done I think we will have multiple companies saying they would step forward and ship through the port,” Magidson said.
Development of the Port of Port St. Joe was one the main priorities identified by a study to create a freight logistics zone between Gulf and Gadsden counties which was approved last year.
Creating a working port in Port St. Joe has long been identified by regional economic development officials as a critical step not only in the transformation of Gulf County, but a four or five-county region.
“We are focused on the money for the dry dock, but our focus has expanded to money for the dredging,” Magidson said. “I’m positive about the future for the port.
“There are a lot of people behind it.”