Officials with the Port of Port St. Joe are taking the first steps toward dredging the shipping channel, the key to development for the port.
Meanwhile Port Authority board members are examining options to maintain ballast until those ships begin arriving.
The first steps on a path toward dredging were discussed during the Port Authority’s regular bi-monthly meeting last week, with port director Tommy Pitts informing the board on the direction.
Pitts said officials with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection recommended that the Port of Port St. Joe move ahead as the applicant to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the dredging.
Various alternatives had been discussed in meetings with state and federal officials, Pitts said.
“We have had a variety of meetings pursuing charting the path forward,” Pitts said. “The DEP indicates the quickest way is to proceed with the port as the applicant seeking assistance from the Corps.”
Pitts said the St. Joe Company has agreed to provide local match funding of roughly $250,000 to get started and will be involved with the crafting of a task agreement with engineers.
That agreement is ready to be set in stone with the engineering firm of Hatch Mott McDonald, one of the engineering firms of record with the port. Preble Rish Engineers is also involved with that team.
“We are ready to proceed with the task agreement,” Pitts said.
The economic fuel for the dredging, the key factor, is two Letters of Intent the St. Joe Company has entered into with regional energy companies to ship wood pellets through the Port of Port St. Joe.
The two LOIs anticipate as much as 1 million metric tons being shipped through the port within five or so years. The LOIs, however, are contingent on dredging the shipping channel within the next two to three years.
Even without the two LOIs, port officials have long said that any port development – and the jobs that would accompany it – would hinge on dredging a channel that has not been dredged in nearly 30 years.
“You have to get the channel dredged if you want a port in Port St. Joe,” said Port Authority board member Eugene Raffield. “You have to have it. This has the potential to be the biggest thing that ever happened in Port St. Joe.”
The port, Raffield added, sits at critical juncture. After nearly a decade of discussions and “visioning” with the St. Joe Company and local stakeholders, the past 18 months have brought progress.
The Port of Port St. Joe, however, is also “skeletal” in staff and badly in need of revenue to maintain operations while navigating the dredging thicket, said Port Authority chair Leonard Costin.
“It is no secret we are broke,” Costin said. “We’ve been able to squeeze by until (the end of the fiscal year in September), but barely.”
The port also faces foreclosure on its barge terminal land, encompassing 67 acres, and must remain an operational entity to ensure continued access to state and federal grants disbursed to members of the state’s Strategic Intermodal System.
“We have to have something here that makes us viable,” Costin said.
A hearing pertaining to the foreclosure proceeding brought by Capital City Bank was held Tuesday.
Costin said attorneys indicated an immediate decision unlikely and Costin said he hoped the case would be determined in favor of the Port Authority or would compel Capital City “to leave us alone for a time.”
“They are going to be paid back,” Costin said. “They can kill the golden goose if they pursue this case or they could just back off.”
As a first step in a community campaign, the Port Authority further whittled what was already a slim budget.
Contractor Nadine Lee, who serves as the port’s administrative assistant, agreed to volunteer her time until at least the end of year, rendering the administrative portion of the budget nil given that Pitts was already at $1 per month.
“I’d be willing to work for free until you get some money,” she told board members. “I believe that much in the port. I feel we are going to get the money.”
Board member Patrick Jones noted that the Port Authority was spending $14,000 a month in administrative expenses a few years ago and was now projecting $14,000 a month. Now, the administrative line item had disappeared.
“The work still has to get done,” Jones said. “You’d be coming in as lean as any company could get. If (Lee) isn’t going to do it, who will?”
The Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, Inc. has agreed to assist with some overlapping expenses – Pitts has worked with the EDA and the EDA on the port for several months.
After cutting other expenses where possible and landing on a “bare-bones” budget, the budget for the coming fiscal year was reduced to just under $54,000.
The unknown was funding that budget.
The Port Authority board has wrestled for more than a month on a community fundraising campaign.
“We have got to find a solution to keep this thing afloat for the next two to three years,” Raffield said.
He said assembling the platform on which the Port Authority can reach out in the future is to document the past, demonstrating how money has been spent on infrastructure to build the port footprint.
Officials should also reach out to state, federal, county and city elected officers.
“They all have a heckuva an interest in this,” Raffield said.
Raffield said costs have piled up on local residents while state and county officials don’t fully understand what is happening in the county.
“We need industry, we need jobs, to balance the overhead people have here,” Raffield said. “I love to be positive. I am also a realist. I understand where we are in the county.
“But his has the potential to set the pace for Northwest Florida for the next 100 years.”
The solution is to get all stakeholders on board the train, from the federal level down. The governor, Costin said, wants to understand the return for any state investment. The local legislative delegation is seeking ways to appropriate state dollars.
“I don’t know where we get it unless we have people in this community who would step up,” Costin said. “We could talk about it all day and run out of money.”
Jones said the board must quantify an investment in the port. How, he wondered, would it look to federal and state officials that the Port Authority could not fund itself?
“The question is what is the port worth?” Jones said. “What is it worth to the community, to the region? We invest in ourselves by the choices we make. We invest in our community with the decision we make. This is no difference.
“Everyone in this community should be solicited and they make a choice. If the community does not want to support us then we have our answer.”
Loretta Costin vice president of the EDA, said funding would likely come from a variety of sources and agreed to take on the task of strategic fundraising plan.
“We are at a crossroads,” Raffield said. “We need attention from all sides, the community and the politicians and the corporate side.”