Permitting for dredging of the Port St. Joe shipping channel got its official start last week.
With an agreement with the St. Joe Company addressing the local match on a state grant in place, the Port St. Joe Port Authority officially signed an agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation.
The agreement secures a $1 million FDOT grant, with St. Joe agreeing to provide the $250,000 local match, to fund the permitting of dredging of the shipping channel to its authorized 35 feet.
Collecting the data for the permit is already underway with Hatch Mott MacDonald engineering the permitting for the Port Authority.
Port director Tommy Pitts said a pre-application meeting, originally set for this week, was pushed back to Sept. 30 to allow for a more complete collection of data.
The key for the pre-application meeting – during which state agencies will provide input and insight on the direction of dredging – is to have as complete an application on the other side as possible.
“We want to be able to confine the requests for more information from state agencies to a minimum,” Pitts said.
Additionally, researchers were “in the water” beginning two weeks ago conducting a seagrass survey. The hope is that the survey can be completed and reviewed by the end of the month.
Port Authority board members put a sharper point on efforts to secure support, particularly financial, as the bottom line shrinks and development appears poised for takeoff in the coming months and years.
Port attorney Tom Gibson reported that feedback from a tax attorney indicates the donations to the Port Authority would be tax-deductible.
Gibson could not secure a written opinion due to cost, but board chairman Leonard Costin, a certified public accountant, said the information was identical to his understanding.
“I have no doubt in my mind it is tax deductible,” Costin said.
Costin reported he had already secured $2,200 in pledges to the Port Authority, which is trying to raise revenue to meet basic operational needs as a new budget year arrives the first of next month.
The Port Authority’s “bare-bones” budget for the coming year earmarks $2,640 per month for operations.
“We are trying to get the community involved,” Costin said. “We are going broke. We’ve got to get some people to support us.”
Costin received pushback from several board members about proposals to solicit funds in the community, including placing change jars at stores around town and seeking pledges from small businesses.
“The citizens here and the businesses here pay too much for the infrastructure here,” said board member Eugene Raffield.
Board member Patrick Jones disagreed.
He noted that there are “big pots” of money available from the state and feds to undertake dredging and other activities, but no money available for operations.
The plan was to watch every penny spent and the board will prioritize how funds raised are spent. But community buy-in for the effort, to maintain a Port Authority, presence, was critical.
“It is up to people to decide if it is worthwhile to participate in this effort,” Jones said. “To not ask is to not do everything.”
Raffield said he is working with state officials and agencies to secure support for the Port of Port St. Joe.
He said he has made inroads though was not in a position to outline specifics.
The focus, Raffield said, should be on soliciting help from state officials for two fundamental reasons: there are funds and port development represents a regional opportunity.
“We infrastructure here that has been paid for in the tens of millions of dollars,” Raffield said. “You have a major system here. We have been in a coma. We have to get out of the coma and walk together.
“It’s not about us, it’s about our future. We have a real chance, here. This is a regional issue.”
The cost of doing nothing, Costin added, would be continued rising poverty in the county, declining enrollment and funding for schools and negative impacts to the business community.
“The cost of not doing anything, what a cost regionally,” Costin said.
Raffield said Eastern Shipbuilding and the announcement from more than a year ago that the company would be coming to Port St. Joe to establish a ship-outfitting facility has “left a bad taste in people’s eyes” as the company has yet to come to Gulf County.
He said the company is filling berths in Bay County and will need to expand, but the fact the company has yet to do so, while failing to communicate a clear timetable – the proposed arrival of Eastern has been pegged several times only to be pushed back – was a sore point.
“I don’t know who the quarterback is on that without any update,” Raffield said. “We don’t know what is going on.”
County Commissioner Warren Yeager, present for last week’s meeting of the Port Authority, said Eastern continues to pay its lease with St. Joe and remains committed to moving into Gulf County.
“It is about timing,” Yeager said. “At some point it is going to happen.”
Yeager also suggested that the Port Authority speak to the Economic Development Alliance, Inc. about possible assistance the EDA could provide the Port Authority to meet operational expenses.
“It is critical to keep (local operations) going,” Yeager said.
Yeager also noted that the Board of County Commissioners had conveyed a resolution passed in support of port development onto other counties in the region for passage.
“Everybody is trying to help the port,” Yeager said. “They know this is a regional port.”