In a wide ranging discussion about the RESTORE Act and the potential for dollars to Gulf County, the Port Authority identified several priorities, particularly holding onto the barge terminal land under threat of foreclosure from Capital City Bank.
Much of the discussion was about the broad strokes of the RESTORE Act, which provides for dividing possible BP fine monies from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.
In particular, Port Authority board members were focused on so-called Pot No. 1, which represents, under RESTORE, money that would come directly to the eight disproportionally impacted counties in Florida.
The estimate of the amount possibly coming to Gulf County ranges from $15 to $20 million, though a trial date in the civil case against BP has not been set and there is no civil settlement, which the RESTORE Act specifically addresses.
Board chairman Leonard Costin proposed that the Port Authority propose sponsoring and being the first recipient in a revolving economic development fund. The idea is aimed at the land under threat of foreclosure.
“My thought is we need to apply for that $5 million loan,” Costin said, alluding to the $4-plus million the Port Authority owes Capital City Bank. “I am thinking a loan interest loan with variable terms or to apply for a $250,000 grant to address environmental problems in the (old mill site).
“I think we could be the sponsor of a revolving economic development fund that would be countywide and be the first recipient to tap into it. Paying it back would make it easier to swallow” for the Board of County Commissioners, the final say in how county funds are spent.
Port director Tommy Pitts said the environmental problems are strictly wetlands delineation.
Board member Patrick Jones agreed that the Port Authority’s focus must be in keeping the barge bulkhead land, which is along the Intracoastal Canal.
“Our first priority is to secure the land where that bulkhead is located and the sands are running,” Jones said.
As was emphasized during last week’s meeting, the county is essentially working somewhat in the dark. Federal rules have not come down from the Department of the Treasury, which will oversee disbursement of funds under RESTORE.
In addition, with no trial date and the potential that a trial could take years, there is no guarantee the county will see funds in the near-term. There is also the possibility that BP may negotiate the civil penalty with the Department of Justice in such a way that renders RESTORE all but moot.
Port Authority board members were encouraged to look at the Port of Port St. Joe as a regional project which would allow it to tap into multiple pots of money for various efforts – such as environmental or economic development of Northwest Florida.
“I really believe it will happen, that the port will come back to Port St. Joe, and that has regional impact,” Costin said.
Board member Eugene Raffield also emphasized that in thinking about projects to be funded under RESTORE, there was a need for a long-term view.
“Buying land is not the issue, it is where the land is,” Raffield said. “A port needs to be where the water and deepwater access is. This is not about today, it is about tomorrow. A port is a global thing.”
Pitts said he was submitting a pre-proposal to the county RESTORE Act committee seeking $5 million and working toward turning unencumbered the barge terminal land with a promise to the county to return the money.
Capital City loan
Capital City Bank has filed a request for summary judgment in a foreclosure case against the Port of Port St. Joe.
Port attorney Tom Gibson, who is not directly handling the litigation, said Capital City had filed a denial of claims by the Port and request a judge issue a summary judgment under which a $4-plus million mortgage on port property along the Intracoastal Canal should be foreclosed upon and a sale date for the property set.
Gibson said the bank was arguing there were no issues of fact for a judge to decide and therefore the foreclosure should proceed.
Gibson said if the judge rules in the bank’s favor, such a judgment would be expected in the next 30-45 days with a sale possible as soon as March or April.
The property in question was substantially improved by the Port Authority through state and federal grants, including the construction of a bulkhead for a proposed barge terminal site.
Gibson said the hope would be that the Port Authority successfully argues there are issues of fact to be decided by the judge which would necessitate a trial.
Gibson reported on a recent trade mission undertaken by Gov. Rick Scott to Colombia in which Gibson was a participant.
“Overall, it was a good trip,” Gibson said. “It was the largest trade delegation from Florida to go to Colombia.”
Gibson said the trip including several days in Bogota, the country’s capital, as well two days in port cities such as Cartagena and Barranquilla.
Gibson was part of one-on-one conversations with officials from a cement company that exports to the Southern United States and operates port locations in Houston and North Carolina.
Also part of the trip was Santa Marta, a tourist area where the port is located downtown and provided an opportunity to view the potential challenges the Port of Port St. Joe would have in being a good neighbor through stewardship of surrounding lands.
He noted that a coal terminal moved coal from ship to shore that was within 100 yards of what Gibson called a very clean beach.
“That kind of operation can be done,” Gibson said, noting that the port of Santa Marta provides a “little of everything” as far as products shipped in and out of the port.
“Our intent was making sure everybody knew we were here and what we do,” Gibson said.
Following up on contacts made during the trip – the mission included several executives of the St. Joe Company, the Port Authority’s collaborator in developing the Port of Port St. Joe – had already begun.
“There were a lot of good contacts made down there and we are trying to follow up on this,” said Dane Caldwell of St. Joe, referencing contacts made by company CEO Park Brady and others.
Master plan update
Port director Tommy Pitts said he had completed the first two steps in the process of updating the port master plan and that had brought down some funding from the Department of Economic Opportunity, which provided grant funds for the update.
“The DEO did us a favor by frontloading the grant,” said Pitts, who has been working for months at $1 per month.
He said the plan would include response from the marketplace and feedback from the St. Joe Company and the Bank of Montreal, which St. Joe engaged to assist in identifying the best use for the port and potential clients.
Pitts also expressed confidence that the Port of Port St. Joe would receive at least a two-year extension of its status as part of the Florida Strategic Intermodal System (SIS). That extension is crucial as 75 percent of discretionary funding for the Florida Department of Transportation is earmarked for projects within the SIS.
“We have no written confirmation yet but there is consensus (among DOT officials) that we are going to get an extension,” Pitts said.