Officials with the Port of Port St. Joe received some strategically important news from the state on Monday.
The Florida Department of Transportation announced a three-year extension for the port’s designation as part of the state’s Strategic Intermodal System (SIS), a crucial designation that provides a link to federal and state funding for the port.
The port was named an “emerging SIS” member in 2008, but that designation, which is linked to criteria for goods and people moving through the port, was due to elapse this year.
The Port Authority, armed with a new collaborative agreement signed last year with The St. Joe Company, applied for an extension of the SIS designation, with FDOT District III officials assisting in the application and lobbying the main office in Tallahassee for the extension.
District III Secretary James T. Barfield wrote to port officials on March 11 to officially confirm the Port of Port St. Joe was granted the extension – the FDOT no longer uses the “emerging” designation – through Feb. 25, 2016.
“This is very good news indeed,” said Barry Sellers, director of the Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, Inc.
The designation also includes the waterway connector to the port harbor channel and turning basin to the Gulf Coast shipping channel and the Genesee Wyoming rail connector from the port to the rail corridor.
Providing an echo to words that have been offered during recent regular port meetings, Barfield acknowledges the time required to develop the port.
However, FDOT officials had taken a kinder eye to the Port of Port St. Joe and the SIS designation since the Port Authority and St. Joe entered into a formal agreement to develop the port.
“The Department recognizes that the redevelopment of this area (the port, rail and channel) will take additional time to become operational and meet the minimum criteria thresholds for seaport activity,” Barfield wrote to port director Tommy Pitts.
The importance of maintaining the SIS designation can not be overstated for the future of the port.
The FDOT earmarks 70-75 percent of discretionary funding each year for maintenance and infrastructure improvements – so-called discretionary funding – for members of the SIS. As SIS designees, ports and other transportation hubs are seen by the state as strategic to the flow of goods and people.
With the SIS funding for the shipping channel, Pitts added, the port could find luring state and federal dollars for dredging an easier hurdle to leap.
“This is excellent news,” Pitts said.
The Florida Ports Council, in its annual report on the state’s seaports, also noted the progress being made at the Port of Port St. Joe.
Early in the report, the collaboration agreement between the port and St. Joe Company was noted, the partners “shrewdly marketing their combined properties to broaden the state’s scope of deepwater offerings.”
“While much of the basic infrastructure is in place, there remain many improvement projects that will be required to develop a fully operational port,” the report details under a description of the Port of Port St. Joe.
“The Port Authority and private partner, The St. Joe Company, affirm that any expenditure of funds on project development must be in response to market demands; the marketing effort now underway will help define that demand and the projects to support the identified markets.”
The report notes the Memorandum of Understanding between port and St. Joe and the lease with Eastern Shipbuilding as accomplishments in the prior year and the goals for the coming year include completing the master plan update; attracting appropriate users to bring job creation and economic development; initiating the process for resuming maintenance dredging of the ship channel; and enhancing the rail line that connects the port to the CSX mainline.