The Port St. Joe Port Authority provided county and city officials the “state of the port” last week.
Time will tell whether that will translate into financial assistance with government budgets being crafted in the coming months.
The Port board requested the special meeting with the Board of County Commissioners and Port St. Joe city commissioners in order, Eugene Raffield said, to provide an update to elected officials, complete with an understanding of hurdles.
A prominent hurdle is the lack of operating expenses for the Port Authority, listed on the agenda, but never formally broached other than a request by board chair Leonard Costin for commissioners to be mindful of the port come budget time.
But, primarily, Raffield has said, elected officials need to understand the critical juncture at which the port sits.
“This (ship channel) dredging is key because this isn’t just about Gulf County, but also the inland counties and Franklin County,” Raffield said. “This could take off and be a game-changer as a regional concept. This will be one of the biggest things to happen to this area.
“I just want to see jobs. I want that in the future parents and grandparents won’t have to say goodbye to their children when they graduate from high school.”
The importance of developing the port was echoed by Jim Brook with Opportunity Florida, a private/public economic development organization that champions the Rural Areas of Critical Economic Concern (RACEC) of nine counties that includes Gulf County.
“(The Port of Port St. Joe) is a regional economic development project,” Brook said. “We see the port as being key and critical to what happens in the nine counties.
“We have to compete regionally and we applaud your efforts. We will provide support any way we can.”
Costin and Tommy Pitts and Billy Perry with Hatch Mott MacDonald provided an overview of the application process to secure a permit to dredge the federally-authorized shipping channel.
“I see a 2015 launch,” Costin said. “It is moving forward. We have our challenges but we are working through them and I think all systems are go and I think 2015 is the landing.”
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken over the application for the dredge work itself under a contributed funds agreement, a somewhat unique step for the Corps to take, Pitts said.
In effect, under the agreement, the Corps took the 1,000 page dredge study completed by Hatt Mott and put its own stamp on the study, making it a Corps document.
Having the Corps as point on that work has also allowed the effort to avoid what could have been major pitfalls forcing delays that might jeopardize the shipping agreements that are the foundation of the dredging effort.
One was accretion of sand along the tip of St. Joseph Peninsula which has brought the tip into the channel. A proposed detour of the channel around the current tip could have required extensive study, but the Corps involvement eliminates that possibility, Pitts said.
“The most responsible thing to do was to realign the channel,” Perry said.
Additionally, Corps participation opened up existing federal spoil easement sites adjacent to the Gulf County Canal which should reduce costs of spoil disposal and ease permitting after spoil studies, being performed by Hatch Mott, are completed.
The work is finished and Hatch Mott is awaiting state agency response, Pitts said.
“It is a major effort and progress is being made,” Pitts said, adding that two Letters of Intent with the St. Joe Company from energy companies committing to ship over 1 million tons annually through the port provide the case for dredging.
Those LOIs are being memorialized contractually at the request of the Florida Department of Transportation as part of making the case to release a rail grant as well as a $20 million appropriation for channel dredging.
One contract – both now include the Port Authority as partner – is with the DOT, port attorney Tom Gibson said. The other is pending approval from the energy company.
Once finalized, it is believed the state will release a $3.75 million rail improvement grant for the Genesse-Wyoming line between Chattahoochee and Port St. Joe. The St. Joe Company, which owns the line, is matching the appropriation with $1.25 million.
Costin said with progress toward dredging, particularly with permitting which is expected before the end of the year, more money, be it private or public, should be forthcoming to fund the estimated $40-$45 million price tag for the project.
“If they put in $20 million they will find the rest of it,” said County Commissioner Warren Yeager who recently met with DOT Secretary Anand Presad and said the state would not have appropriated the money if not convinced of the potential.
“They (state officials) are excited about the opportunity for this region and this port.”
There were concerns among commissioners, however, primarily about the role of St. Joe in the equation. County Commissioner Ward McDaniel noted the Port Authority owns “not a grain of sand along the water” and everything hinges on the deepwater access owned by St. Joe.
Costin and Gibson explained the formal collaborative agreement with St. Joe to develop the port, a shared marketing agreement and noted the change in position of the company from adversary to collaborator.
“We have mutual interest and should work together to achieve that mutual interest,” said Port Authority board member Jason Shoaf. “Partnering with a private company using public dollars, though, is a sensitive issue.”
City Commissioner William Thursbay and County Commissioner Joanna Bryan also expressed concerns about the dynamics of the proposed development of the port and the mix of public dollars in the effort.
But Raffield said one of the goals of the joint meeting was to put all the players in the same room, the same players that can assist the Port Authority in making decisions best for the community clear.
Costin said the mutual interest was the driver, while St. Joe hopes to make money the goal of the Port Authority is to create jobs.
“I’m more encouraged now than I’ve ever been,” Yeager said.