The import of last week’s Port St. Joe Port Authority meeting was masked by the straightforward discussion.
Last week the Port Authority approved a contract and scope of work to draft the application for a permit to dredge the existing shipping channel.
Board members also heard and approved a presentation from a representative of the Haas Center at the University of West Florida concerning a study to benchmark a return on investment as the port is poised for development.
It would almost be difficult to overstate the importance of both contracts.
To move forward on development, to transform into revenue two Letters of Intent between the St. Joe Company and energy supply firms to ship wood pellets through the Port of Port St. Joe, to become a benefactor for state and federal funding pots, those two contracts mark a pivotal moment.
The contract on the dredge permit application was preceded by a recent meeting among engineers hired by the Port Authority and state and federal agencies to determine heading into the process what would be needed to obtain the permit.
Bill Perry with Hatch Mott MacDonald said that the objective and the timeline aggressive.
“We won’t feel we have done our job if we don’t meet our objective, which is to bring back a permit within the funds you have,” he told Port Authority members. “We are shooting for six months, though we would like to submit in four months. That is an aggressive time frame.
“We understand what the finish line is. The objective is to get a dredged channel. We know what we are working with as far as available funds.”
The contract approved last week will eat up nearly $800,000 of the $1 million Florida Department of Transportation grant the Port Authority secured for the dredge permit work.
A quarter of that, $250,000 which represents the local match of the state funds, is being provided by the St. Joe Company, the Port Authority’s collaborator in developing the port.
But, Perry said, several factors provided wind in sails.
Many studies done in prior years had proved useful in providing some of the essential information agencies would need.
The shipping channel itself, 14 miles long but dredged as recently as 1986, does not represent a new or overly complex project.
The channel is there and roughly 60 percent is need of little more than maintenance dredging, said board member Eugene Raffield.
“We need to note that compared to other ports in the state this will probably need the least amount of dollars to keep it open per ship,” Raffield said. “That is very appealing to agencies.”
Perry said a recent seagrass study showed “minimal impact” from the dredging.
The St. Joe Company has identified a number of inland sites for the spoil material from dredging and preliminary examination of the shipping channel showed there was a possibility of materials, particularly near the spit of St. Joseph Peninsula, suitable for beach nourishment.
The first major component of the application moving ahead, Perry said, was an in-depth study of the sediment in the channel.
Over several days in mid-November work will begin from a pair of barges as engineers bore 67 GPS noted locations in the shipping channel to determine the soil contents. Engineers will bore two inches below authorized depths at various points of the channel.
“We need to get busy on that immediately,” Perry said. “It is very important we know for the 14 miles of the channel what we have and where, what is suitable for beach material and what is not.
“Before we can do anything else we need to know the materials we are dealing with.”
The potential hiccup to disrupting the timeline, Perry noted, was the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a Corps requirement before undertaking a dredging project to perform a study to determine negative impacts on any Corps project.
Perry noted that the dredging would not have an impact on any Corps project, but the study would push out the timeline for the application to dredge and would be a study the Port Authority, lacking in revenue, would have to fund.
“Our hope is that it will not be required,” Perry said, while adding that there was also a pot of federal money the Port of Port St. Joe could qualify for to assist in underwriting the dredging project. “We are trying to access those federal dollars.”
The acronym for Return on Investment, ROI, has been a mantra from state officials, from the governor to legislators, when discussing additional investing in developing the port with port officials.
A contracted study, board chair Leonard Costin said, could top $60,000, money the Port Authority does not have.
However, the Haas Center, which researches and analyzes economic trends across Northwest Florida, agreed to undertake a study at far less – under $20,000 – to try to pinpoint the value of the port as a developed and operational port.
Rod Lewis said the study would focus on seven basic elements, including an overview of the history of the Port of Port St. Joe; the tonnage of material committed to the port through the St. Joe LOIs; the $5 million in Genesse-Wyoming rail improvements St. Joe was contracting for and the rail line jobs that work would generate; three other projects that are on the burner and would become more viable with a developed port; and facilities and infrastructure built on regional airports due to facilitate the movement of goods in and out of a developed port.
“You are building on a core foundation built up over time,” said Lewis in referencing millions in infrastructure the port has acquired in significant part through state and federal funding for ports. “That is at the core of what we are looking at.”
Raffield said another selling point for the Port of Port St. Joe was location, its relative proximity to an expanded Panama Canal in relation to other Florida ports as well as markets to the north and the access to rail and highways.
Given the level of goods shipped by truck and shipped through the Panama Canal, reduced fuel costs to ship into and truck out of the Port of Port St. Joe would be advantageous.
Lewis said a draft of the Haas Center study could be provided in four to five weeks with an aim at having a completed study in time for the state legislative session.
Meetings of the Florida Legislature begin in December with the session beginning in February.
The FDOT approved using some of the funds from the dredge permit application dollars to pay the $19,500 for the study.
“We are going to be tight,” Costin said of the $1 million in FDOT dollars moving things forward. “We need to justify what we are doing to the powers that be.”