The Port of Port St. Joe has been awarded a $70,000 grant from the Florida Department of Economic Development to fund the update of the port master plan.
The Port Authority board also heard encouraging word on maintaining the critical designation of being part of the state’s Strategic Intermodal System and also on instruction to enhance the local workforce in anticipation of the arrival of Eastern Shipbuilding Group either late this year or early next year.
The DOE grant will allow Port Director Tommy Pitts to do most of the work in-house while finally drawing a salary that exceeds one dollar per month.
The update of the master planning document is crucial as the port moves forward with development under collaboration between the Port Authority and St. Joe Company.
“The properties committed to port development have changed so dramatically,” Pitts said. “The collaboration with St. Joe brings the mill site in. There is the Arizona Chemical property, the rail access. The funding the state makes available for ports is for property within the port master plan.”
Those properties will also likely include those lands and activity to the north of the Intracoastal Waterway owned and operated by Woods and Raffield Fisheries.
“We included them in the 2003 update and we can include them again,” Pitts said.
The first step for the update is a stakeholders’ meeting, or public hearing, concerning the port’s plans, the lands they are planning for development and seeking input.
Some stakeholders are identified and invited, Pitts said.
Those include both the municipalities in the county, the Board of County Commissioners, the Gulf County Economic Council/Chamber of Commerce, Opportunity Florida and Waterfronts Florida among others.
Beyond that, the meeting seeks input from all interested parties concerning the direction the port is moving.
“What we’re doing is providing an opportunity for comments and feedback,” Pitts said. “This is the first step, the time for interested parties to share their thoughts about the port and port development.”
The ability to do the work primarily in house is important for a port that is as yet undeveloped and in need of revenue.
Pitts has been involved in two other updates of the same plan and the requirements for some technical data have been moved to later in the process, Pitts said he is confident the work can be completed in-house.
St. Joe will provide GIS mapping and graphics assistance and the Florida Department of Transportation will assist with transportations issues pertaining to the port.
“The critical thing for us right now is moving forward on this stakeholders’ meeting,” said Port Authority chairman Leonard Costin. “I’d like people to know this is an important meeting.”
As the process hits milestones, such as the stakeholders’ meeting, the grant funding will be disbursed. With the grant Pitts and Nadine Lee, who have worked at the Port Authority more than a decade will be able to draw some salary.
Pitts was appreciative but noted the overall goal was larger than any salary.
“What we’re doing here is an opportunity,” Pitts said. “Everybody here is trying to work together to make something happen here.”
Pitts reported optimism regarding the port’s application to extend by at least three years its designation as part of Florida’s SIS.
Some 75 percent of FDOT discretionary funding is earmarked for projects within the SIS.
A letter requesting the extension – the current SIS designation expires in spring 2013 – has been drafted and communicated to the District III FDOT office in Chipley.
“I talked to (Secretary Tommy Barfield) and there is favor being shown to us,” Pitts said. “There is an expectation it will be approved at the main office in Tallahassee. There is support for this port there also.”
Board member Eugene Raffield said he sensed “a green light” for the application as staff from FDOT was recently in Port St. Joe taking photos and getting the “lay of the land” at the port.
Pitts also noted that the Port Authority has recently been approached by two parties interested in leasing a portion of the barge bulkhead along the Intracoastal Waterway.
During a discussion pertaining to Eastern Shipbuilding Group and the city of Port St. Joe’s initial reluctance to waive water and sewer fees (see story on this page), Raffield turned to what could be done about the local workforce.
“The big issue for (Eastern) is getting the labor,” Raffield said. “There is a huge demand for fabricated vessels on the world market. This thing could grow by 40 percent in 12 months.”
Raffield said there was particular need for welders and said it was important of teamwork among St. Joe, ESG and the Port Authority regarding issues pertaining to the workforce and any incentives to expanding into Gulf County.
“We must all talk on the same page,” Raffield said, “that we are all coming together for the sake of the community.”
In several fronts, there is progress.
Loretta Costin with the Gulf/Franklin Center said that the Gulf Coast Workforce Board and Gulf County Schools were teaming to soon offer an evening welding class for those interested, regardless of age. Costin said the college was examining similar programs.
In addition, Pitts reported that activity at the Chamber of Commerce, where ESG representatives take applications twice a week, had picked up.
As of last week, 100 people had been hired through the Chamber, though the exact number from Gulf County was unknown.
“The labor is a concern for them,” Pitts said. “It’s a problem we need to solve. I’m encouraged by the traffic we have seen.”