The macro and the micro were identified last week as the Port St. Joe Port Authority board crafted a fundraising campaign.
Port Authority chairman Leonard Costin urged commissioners for more than a month to plan a community campaign aimed at providing the minimum operating capital for the coming fiscal year.
But commissioners also agreed with board member Eugene Raffield who said the state and federal governments need to be partners if the community is going to join the effort to develop the Port of Port St. Joe into an operating developer of the region’s economics.
“How can you ask the people of this town to support us if the powers that be won’t,” Raffield said. “There are lot of people hurting here. If our government isn’t going to back us, what are we doing here?
“This is a regional concept worth billions of dollars.”
The key in the short-term, Raffield said, is right in front of the Port Authority – dredging of the deepwater shipping channel.
With the expansion of the Panama Canal which should be completed in the next two years and the increase in traffic that already is bursting existing Florida ports at the seams, Raffield said there was real opportunity for the Port of Port St. Joe to become a beacon for smaller vessels, a niche port.
“We are going to get a win if we get this channel dredged,” Raffield said. “But without the channel dredged to 35 feet, my gut feeling is the port will never happen. And if we don’t have the support of the (government), how do we ask the small guy for support.”
The port, several commissioners noted, is dealing with a chicken-egg dilemma.
Until port development comes, a return on investment is elusive. But until the investment arrives, specifically to dredge the channel, the odds for development remain elusive.
And dredging will only happen with state and federal government support, both in dollars and in speeding the permitting for the channel along.
“This is a dire need priority,” Raffield said. “This is not about Port St. Joe. This is a regional conflict that could bring thousands and thousands of jobs.”
Raffield identified an upcoming regional meeting of the Florida Chamber of Commerce to be held in Port St. Joe in November as an opportunity to bring economic development stakeholders and regulatory agencies to the table to determine a path ahead and a web of assistance for the port.
Raffield further said that all local stakeholders, from the cities to the county to the Chamber to the EDA to business owners to St. Joe need to join at the table.
The port effort is a community effort, for the future, Raffield has repeatedly stated.
Port Authority chair Leonard Costin has long sought funding from the state, primarily to fund basic operations, but said that from Gov. Rick Scott on down the mantra is what is the return on investment in the Port of Port St. Joe?
He said he’s had very little success raising operational money – port director Tommy Pitts earns $1 a month and assistant Nadine Lee is forgoing any salary – but dredging money is likely going to be available.
“You’ve got to have someone manning the ship,” Raffield said.
And Dane Caldwell of St. Joe offered a counter to the return on investment argument.
“What’s the return on non-investment?” Caldwell said, noting the region had been one of economic concern to the state for much of a decade. “The whole region is wanting to stand on its feet. What is the return in not investing in the port?”
Board member Patrick Jones said the port should tell a story from the standpoint of what has been invested and what needs to be invested. He said the longer the port infrastructure remains unaddressed, the more the loss from prior investment.
The port has already seen millions in state and federal investment.
“There is investment already made and a loss from inaction,” Jones said.
Costin emphasized that in addition to long-term funding for items such as dredging, the Port Authority faces a more short-term issue in the lack of operating revenue.
The port, Costin said, will be out of money in roughly a month. Over the first six months of the coming fiscal year, $15,000 is needed to maintain operations.
Costin said his goal would be to establish a separate bank account to deposit local contributions and use the money – “We would have to micro-manage for a bit,” Costin said - to meet operational expenses.
“I understand the big picture, but we are not going to be able to start the conversation on the big picture unless we do this little bit now,” Costin said.
The Port Authority divided community outreach among commissioners. They will approach potential corporate sponsors and other organizations in a position to assist.
Costin and EDA president Guerry Magidson have already pledged $500.
Board member Jessica Rish indicated Preble Rish Engineers was also willing to assist.
“We all here believe this is worth it,” Jones said. “We have to sell that to people.”