The Port St. Joe Port Authority is seeking a little help from some friends.
While the application process for a permit to dredge the shipping channel crawls forward, Port Authority board members, entering a fiscal year with scant funds dissipating, are trying to remain viable.
The application for the permit process hit a major milestone last week with a pre-application meeting with state and federal agencies.
Port director Tommy Pitts said that most importantly the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection were represented among more than two dozen staff members from various agencies.
“On the regulatory side we got a positive response,” Pitts said.
He said since a shipping channel has long existed in Port St. Joe and was until the 1980s operational and maintained, the dredging is seen as a “fairly straightforward dredging project” as there are a number of known factors to the area and channel.
In addition, inland disposal sites are identified and there has been discussion that any suitable material would be used for beach nourishment on St. Joseph Peninsula.
“The one hurdle that caused the greatest concern,” Pitts said, was whether a Corps of Engineers study might have to be undertaken.
“We are addressing that aggressively,” Pitts said, noting it was largely a question of whether the process of permitting the project would be pushed through the “bureaucracy” or the application could be fast-tracked.
Pitts said the intention was to engage Congressman Steve Southerland and Sen. Bill Nelson most prominently to work with and lobby the Corps to move the application process along.
“We gained confidence from the environmental side, but the Corps bureaucratic process was discouraging,” Pitts said.
“Now the tasks have been defined (for the permit application) they can be negotiated for completing those tasks (with the port’s engineers) and pursuing the permitting.”
The source of the discouragement over the potential for the Corps bureaucracy to swallow the project comes from timing.
A detailed study of the dredging project would require as much as a year, possibly more.
The St. Joe Company, the Port Authority’s collaborator on developing the Port of Port St. Joe, has two Letters of Intent with regional energy companies to ship wood pellets through the Port of Port St. Joe.
Those LOIs hinge significantly on the dredging of the shipping channel by 2015.
Ancillary to the dredging permit is seeking economic justification, based on return on investment, to help build the case for the dredging.
The Port Authority has explored contracting for a study, but cost is prohibitive. The hope is to solicit assistance from the Haas Center at the University of West Florida, which researches and analyzes economic trends in Northwest Florida.
A representative from the Haas Center was due at last week’s meeting, but was unable to make the meeting to provide more details.
If the Center is able to do the work, it could perform the study faster and at less expense, Pitts said.
The cost of the study could come from the Florida Department of Transportation grant to the Port Authority to pursue the dredge permit.
“The cost (of the study), however, could be an issue,” Pitts said.
Operational viability in question
While the Port Authority pursues the dredging, considered the key to unlocking the port’s potential through development, board members continued to wrestle with dwindling resources.
As part of a community outreach campaign, board member Johanna White said she received positive response from the Board of County Commissioners and the St. Joe Company.
She said Jorge Gonzalez, senior vice president for St. Joe, indicated the company “had the resources, talent and people” to become the point of contact for the Port Authority.
The phones at the Port Authority office could be forwarded to St. Joe, which would screen prospects, send out marketing materials and perform other administration duties, White said.
“Maybe just getting the phones forwarded and information to the appropriate people will work,” White said.
Further, county administrator Don Butler indicated county grant administrator Towan Kopinsky could handle the administration of the FDOT grant the Port Authority received, and for which St. Joe is providing the local match, to pursue the permitting.
White added that Barry Sellers, executive director of the Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, Inc., could continue to assist the Port Authority as an on-the-ground marketing point of contact for the port.
“We are trying to cover all the bases,” said board chair Leonard Costin. “We appreciate what (Pitts is) doing and would love to keep you, but we have no money.”
Pitts has worked off and on this year for $1 per month, receiving a small stipend for a few months as part of a state grant to craft a Master Plan update. It was discussed last week that Pitts may soon be in a position of accepting another job.
Board member Eugene Raffield, who has been speaking with state officials about identifying funding for Port Authority operations, said he had no news to report and he was making progress, but slowly.
The consensus on the board was to reach out to the BOCC and city of Port St. Joe for potential assistance in meeting pressing expenditures, particularly liability insurance for port officers and fees to the Florida Ports Council, which are critical to maintaining a place in the mix for state funding.
“We need to focus on that,” said board member Jessica Rish. “The county doesn’t want us to not have a board. The county and the city, those two need to step up before we go to the neighbors for that.”
She said the Port Authority board should sit down with county and city commissioners to “see if we can come up with a plan … If they want us to be here.”
Also looming are legal expenses incurred from the Capital City Bank foreclosure case and general liability insurance for the Port of Port St. Joe.
Resident Bill Koran said officials with the Genesse Wyoming Railroad, the former AN line, which is inextricably linked to the success of the port, would also have a stake in the future of the Port Authority.
“We need to move forward on the local level,” said Costin, who has for more than a month championed a local fundraising campaign. “I don’t think we have an alternative in the short term than going to our citizens. I think the last resort is here.”