A study characterized as “imperative” to the future of the port has taken a turn but continues forward.
The study, to analyze the Return on Investment (ROI) that could be realized with a developed and operational Port of Port St. Joe, has been undertaken by a private consulting firm, but is still on track to be completed by next month.
Originally, a representative of the Haas Center at the University of West Florida, which studies economic trends in Northwest Florida, verbally agreed that the center would undertake the study.
A preliminary approval was given by the Port St. Joe Port Authority.
However, a contract could not be completed due to various factors and with the guidance of staff at the Haas Center the Port Authority was put in contact with the Washington Economic Group out of Coral Gables.
That consultant will perform the study along the same timeline and at the same cost the Haas Center staff had agreed upon, roughly $20,000 which is being paid from the Florida Department of Transportation grant funding work on an application to dredge the shipping channel.
“It is critical we move forward with this study,” said Port Authority chair Leonard Costin. “Time is of the essence. That document is key to funding for dredging.”
The ROI study would present the case for the Port Authority to the Florida Legislature in the effort to secure funding for dredging of the federally-authorized ship channel.
Jorge Gonzalez, senior vice president of the St. Joe Company, collaborators with the Port Authority on port development, said the company is focusing its lobbying efforts on that case.
The case begins with two Letters of Intent between St. Joe and two energy companies, one located in Northwest Florida, to ship wood pellets through the Port of Port St. Joe.
Those agreements hinge on dredging occurring by the end of 2014 or early in 2015.
Further, Costin recently announced a letter of interest from the Holland M. Ware Foundation to ship aggregate and sand through the port and over the Apalachicola Northern Railroad.
The state budget contains a $5 million appropriation for the AN rail line and the Ware Foundation letter expresses the interest provided dredging of the shipping channel is completed.
Gonzalez said the $5 million rail improvement appropriation is pending distribution as state officials look for a “path ahead to dredging” of the Port of Port St. Joe.
“We are optimistic with the progress,” Gonzalez said of that path. “As long as the trend is positive, the feedback from companies is encouraging.
“That is our focus right now. We have two live companies that want to invest in the community. We are actively working with those companies.”
As four engineering companies work to complete the dredge application, funding for the dredging, which has been estimated in the tens of millions of dollars, during this legislative session is critical.
“That ROI study is imperative,” said board member Eugene Raffield, who has suggested any ROI study include the costs of not developing the port given the millions in infrastructure already in place.
“This is not our port, it’s everybody’s port,” Raffield said. “This is a regional concept. We finally have some traction. That ROI study is so important.”
While the long view becomes brighter for the Port of Port St. Joe, the short-term continues to be vexing.
Once again, the Port Authority board discussed how to move ahead without a full-time port director and only a volunteer administrative assistant on staff.
Costin said he had raised or had pledged nearly $5,000 with another $2,500 in-kind support, and the Economic Development Alliance, Inc. has committed to sponsoring a golf tournament in the spring to benefit the Port Authority.
The city of Port St. Joe contributed $10,000 in BP fine money for Florida Ports Council dues and liability insurance.
The EDA board has also pledged to assist in bringing Florida Ports Council dues current to keep the Port of Port St. Joe “at the table” during discussions about state projects and funding.
The port board chose not to vote on a written proposal brought by board member Johanna White that would bring the county and St. Joe Company into the day-to-day operations of the port.
The Board of County Commissioners, she said, offered to provide assistance with administering grants while St. Joe could be the point-of-contact for the Port Authority, with phones rolled over to the company’s offices and the company dealing with potential clients.
“The point of doing this is all of us working together for the common good,” White said. “Each organization has strengths and this outlines the responsibilities.”
County administrator Don Butler said he was there at the request of the BOCC to understand what the Port Authority was requesting and County Commissioner Joanna Bryan corrected White by clarifying the BOCC did not offer anything; commissioners were approached by White.
Port attorney Tom Gibson noted a significant hurdle if the county is in the loop on grants – the BOCC is subject to specific public records laws which could conflict with potential clients seeking confidentiality as they deal with the Port Authority.
Costin said he hoped to secure local volunteers to help man the phones and said he thought current operations were “fine.”
Guerry Magidson of the EDA said that organization was in the process of hiring a staff person who could also assist the Port Authority.
Raffield said more than an operating agreement, the Port Authority needed to return to meeting once a month while urging that all stakeholders – the BOCC, municipalities, the St. Joe Company, etc. – attend.
Coordination among stakeholders, those who wish to invest in the port, who wish to see an operational port producing jobs, was essential.
“It is imperative we have all the groups at the table, working for the same things,” Raffield said. “We should meet once a month and have anybody here that can help the port.
“If we don’t get organized, know where are revenue streams are or are going to come from, we are kidding ourselves.”