With marketing efforts in full swing, a port master plan update moving ahead, the Port St. Joe Port Authority last week discussed a priority for future development of the Port of Port St. Joe – dredging.

With marketing efforts in full swing, a port master plan update moving ahead, the Port St. Joe Port Authority last week discussed a priority for future development of the Port of Port St. Joe – dredging.

Jorge Gonzalez, senior vice president of The St. Joe Company, with which the Port Authority is working on a collaborative agreement to develop the port, said that he and port director Tommy Pitts had a positive meeting recently with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Mobile, AL.

Gonzalez also said his company had been in touch with state officials to begin moving the ball ahead on dredging of the deepwater shipping channel.

The ship channel is authorized for dredging up to 35 feet, but dredging has not taken place in more than two decades.

And while the collaboration between port and St. Joe has provided a larger port footprint to market and a Florida Department of Transportation grant will fund improvements to the Genesee Wyoming rail line connecting the port to points north, creating a deeper shipping channel is essential to developing the port.

“We all understand and agree that dredging is a big part of moving forward,” Gonzalez said.

Dredging, Gonzalez added, was the most complex aspect of growing the port and had the longest lead time from applying to the Corps and having the work performed. He also noted that dredging will be the most expensive aspect of developing the port.

Toward that end, he said, it was important that all stakeholders in the Port of Port St. Joe be on the same page in lobbying for dredging.

“We need to have a consistent message that dredging is a priority,” Pitts said.

The complexity is in understanding what will be needed to open the shipping channel to accommodate the large ships that are a target for efforts by the Bank of Montreal, engaged by The St. Joe Company to market the port.

Pitts said the equation must take in the nature of the materials dredged, where those dredged materials could be placed and how much material needs to be moved.

Pitts said that the turning basin the shipping channel, for example, by its nature might not need to be dredged to 35 feet.

“The meeting with the Corps was very positive,” Gonzalez said. “I thought their perception was one to assist.”

Pitts added, “I thought they were surprised by the progress we have made.”

The dialogue will be ongoing with the Corps and state officials.

Another major roadblock to port development is the pending legal action by Capital City Bank to foreclose on a mortgage for port land on which the port has constructed a barge bulkhead.

The parcel, adjacent to the old Arizona Chemical site now owned by the port and sitting along the Intracoastal Waterway, is in port possession with a mortgage worth more than $4 million.

The positive last week was that Capital City Bank asked for and was granted a continuance from a March district court trial. That continuance pushes the court date back to May.

Capital City Bank is seeking a summary judgment in its favor, but the Port Authority has also argued for a summary judgment on the basis that mortgaging public property without a voter referendum was beyond the scope of the Port Authority’s powers.

“They asked for the continuance to look at several issues and we certainly had no problem with that,” said Port Authority attorney Tom Gibson.

The hope is that time will be on the port’s side, with a chance to secure business and revenue in a bid to stave off any legal action that would move the Port Authority off the barge bulkhead land.

The Port Authority has submitted two pre-proposals to the county RESTORE Act committee, both for $5 million.

The first priority would be an application to secure funding to satisfy the Capital City Bank mortgage. In the alternative, the Port Authority is asking for $5 million to assist on dredging.

The port master plan update – critical to apply for state or federal grant funding – is back on the front burner, with Pitts having received essential market analyses from the Bank of Montreal.

“We will be able to get back on schedule,” Pitts said.

The Port Authority and new Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, Inc. also have continued to work together on a variety of fronts, said Barry Sellers, director of the newly-formed EDA.

“I think because of what we are doing and (the port is) doing, we are joined at the hip,” Sellers said. “I think it is important that we work closely together.”

Sellers said 75 percent of inquiries to the EDA, formerly the Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, “revolve around the port.”

“That is something that needs to be as symbiotic as possible,” said Port Authority member Patrick Jones.

Sellers said the EDA is working on three projects that could involve the port, adding that one of those projects seems to be on a fast track.

“This is a project I feel good about,” Sellers said. “We continue to expand our web and try to catch as much as we can in our net. We are all working together trying to bring jobs here.

“One of the goals is to put the name in front of as many people as possible.”