Of late it seems that every knot of headwind on dredging that propels the Port St. Joe Port Authority is buffeted by a not.
Last week the board heard continuing good news on a permit application to dredge the federally-authorized shipping channel to authorized depth.
The Florida Legislature included in their budget an appropriation that represents at least a healthy down payment on the dredging.
The U.S. Congress was scheduled this week to take up legislation negotiated by Senate and House leaders which would among other provisions buttress funding for dredging and maintenance projects across the country and would earmark a specific percentage of dollars for “emerging ports” such as the Port of Port St. Joe.
The St. Joe Company, the Port Authority’s collaborator in developing the port, is codifying in contract two letters of intent signed last year with energy companies wishing to ship through the port.
In those agreements, for the first time, the Port Authority would be a partner.
And Holland Ware, whose foundation has expressed strong interest in shipping through the Port of Port St. Joe, attended last week’s regular monthly meeting and stated his ongoing support of efforts to unlock the potential of the port.
That positive momentum was mitigated by ongoing issues pertaining to basic operations during what board member Eugene Raffield said was a “rubber meets the road” moment.
Those issues were compounded by the end of last week’s meeting as Nadine Lee stepped down for personal reasons from her position as administrative assistant.
With the departure of Lee, who had worked for much of the past two years as an unpaid volunteer, the Port Authority lacks any staff, having previously lost its port director.
With looming payments for director liability insurance at the end of next month and dues to the Florida Ports Council, a lobbying and advocacy organization for ports in the state, sometime this summer, little in the bank and prospects for tenants unlikely before the next fiscal year and 2015, the board is battling for existence.
A community fundraising effort has raised just under $30,000, far below the expectations of board chairman Leonard Costin.
“If we stop, this all stops,” said board member Jessica Rish.
Raffield said the time had arrived for a sit-down with local governing bodies, a workshop “to let everybody know what is at stake.”
A bullet point of what was needed for the Port Authority to maintain operations should be presented along with the progress being made toward dredging, with the permit application to be submitted by fall and dredging commencing early 2015.
“It’s time for us to get organized and put a fine point on this,” Raffield said of a workshop with the county and municipalities at the soonest opportunity. “Everything has changed. We all have a giant stake in this.”
The Port Authority needs additional assistance from the Board of County Commissioners in the form of relief from a payment looming this summer on a $199,000 loan, funded with federal economic development dollars.
The BOCC and Port Authority had discussed linking that relief to collateral on the loan, but attorney Tom Gibson said the state had heartburn with mortgaging the old Arizona Chemical property, owned outright by the Port Authority, due to the use of federal grant dollars in the securement of the land.
“I would hope the county would work with us,” said board member Jason Shoaf.
Rish said the loan should be part of a formal request to the BOCC for assistance in Port Authority operating expenses, pegged at $65,000 for the duration of the fiscal year.
Gibson noted that beginning in 2016 the BOCC would begin to recoup significant property taxes for the parcel recently foreclosed by Capital City Bank and Costin noted the BOCC had recently had funding to the former Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, Inc. returned by the agency.
“The county stands to benefit the most from the port working,” Rish said.
With those dynamics as backdrop, the boxes for the process to dredging are being steadily ticked off.
Tommy Pitts, project manager with Hatch Mott MacDonald on the dredging permit application said forward progress continues toward the September target for submitting the application.
Dollars to further the cause of developing the port are also in the pipeline.
A state appropriation for $20 million for dredging must survive a veto by the governor, but if approved would offer roughly half of the estimated cost of dredging. The hope is that once approved and the dredging underway next spring, further state investment will come, Costin said.
The contracts with Green Circle and Enova energy companies are aimed at freeing up money already in the state budget to address rail improvements along the Genesse Wyoming rail line feeding into the port.
The contracts would “justify releasing the rail grant,” Costin said.
In Congress, the House and Senate are taking up the final draft of the Water Resources Reform and Development Act.
Among other provisions, the bill contains language that would require federal agencies to fully spend the trust fund established to operation and maintenance activities at the nation’s ports/harbors.
The bill also supports underserved and emerging ports, such as the Ports of Port St. Joe and Panama City, by allocating a specific percentage of those trust funds for ports/harbors that have output of less than 1 million tons annually.
Further, when the trust fund expenditures exceed that of the fiscal year 2012, 10 percent of that excess must be directed to emerging ports and 5 percent to underserved ports.
“I am pleased that we’re now on the verge of some tremendous victories for Florida’s growing maritime industries,” said Rep. Steve Southerland (R-Panama City). “This legislation will direct new resources to Florida’s emerging ports to help capitalize on the economic growth opportunities that come with the expansion of the Panama Canal.”
A further positive is recent direct communication with Doug Wheeler, president of the Florida Ports Council, by Raffield during the council’s recent annual meeting and by Costin in a face-to-face scheduled for this week.
“I am impressed with what you all are doing and appreciate what you’re doing,” Ware said. “We are very supportive of the port.”