There were plenty of positives discussed during last week’s Port of Port St. Joe Authority meeting, but the cloud looming over the port moves closer.
Port attorney Tom Gibson told the Port Authority board that hearings had been set for early March to hear arguments in the foreclosure case being brought by Capital City Bank.
The bank is seeking to foreclose on the port’s parcel that is adjacent to the Intracoastal Canal and contains the port’s barge bulkhead and uplands improvements.
The bank holds a mortgage in excess of $4 million on the property – which is not part of the Arizona Chemical land the Port Authority owns free and clear – and has pursued foreclosure after negotiations on a new payment plan broke down.
The Port Authority is effectively currently operating without revenue and has not made a payment on the mortgage in more than a year.
Capital City Bank, Gibson said, would be seeking a summary judgment in its favor, allowing it to take possession of the land without a hearing. A summary judgment, Gibson said, would be awarded if a Gulf County Circuit Court Judge finds no issues of fact.
“Our aim is to avoid a summary judgment against us,” Gibson said. “We are hoping the judge will find issues of fact which sets up for a trial.”
A trial would likely be months away.
The Port Authority will also argue for a summary judgment, contending that entering into a mortgage for public land without a voter referendum was not a proper use of its power by the Port Authority, Gibson said.
He added that the odds of such an argument carrying the day were not high.
While that legal battle is waged, the Port Authority is moving ahead on an update of the Port of Port St. Joe master plan.
Port director Tommy Pitts said he was waiting on market analysis from the St. Joe Company and the Bank of Montreal, engaged by the St. Joe Company to market the port worldwide, and that the master plan update should be completed in the summer.
The master plan, the update of which is being funded by a grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, is critical has it provides the foundation for future growth in the port planning area and provides a template under which the port may apply for federal and state grant funding for development.
The port also received good news last week regarding rail access.
A $5 million Florida Department of Transportation grant has been approved to allow the upgrading of Genesee Wyoming rail lines between Port St. Joe and Chattahoochee.
The rail is in generally good shape to the north, but improvements over bridges are needed and the work should be completed in a year. Linking the port to Chattahoochee and destinations beyond is considered critical for port development.
In other Port Authority news:
*Port Authority members, joined by Jennifer Jenkins, director of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council as well as County Commissioner Joanna Bryan and Economic Development Council director Barry Sellers, discussed the potential for luring “boutique” cruise lines to the community.
One such proposal was approved by the Port Authority and city of Port St. Joe – under an agreement pertaining to the city’s Jetty Park – but the cruise never took place.
“I think we have a great opportunity there,” said Port Authority member Patrick Jones, also noting such tours as a way to promote the so-called “low docks” in the port planning area. “It probably won’t boost bed tax but it would generate sales tax for the county with people (disembarking) for a day trip.
“But common sense dictates any activity down there enhances the experience for tourists and for people living here.”
Sellers said the concept was a good one if for no other reason than showing off Port St. Joe and Gulf County.
“I think it is a great idea because a lot of people do not realize what we have here,” Sellers said.
Jenkins agreed that such cruise lines would enhance visitor experiences, expose the area to those who might consider a trip to Gulf County in the future and said there were many pluses, though her job performance hinges on bed tax revenue.
“This is something we should definitely look at,” she said.
Bryan said she supported any partnerships and that it was necessary in a small rural area for folks to work together.
Jones suggested establishing a committee that would help identify potential clients for such cruises, how the community could accommodate the smaller cruises and the demographics of those who enjoy such cruises.
Port St. Joe resident Bill Koran emphasized that the Port Authority should be examining ways to use the low docks, which he said were a potential $10 million asset.
*Representatives from Project Nickel, a project the Port Authority has been pursuing for some time, will be in the community for a site visit this week.
“That indicates they are moving forward,” Pitts said.