The Port Authority took a huge first step in the dredging of the shipping channel last week.

The Port Authority took a huge first step in the dredging of the shipping channel last week.

The board can thank the St. Joe Company for the assist.

Port Authority chair Leonard Costin said he had received a pledge from St. Joe Company officials to provide the local match to a Florida Department of Transportation grant that would begin the work toward dredging the Port of Port St. Joe shipping channel.

The FDOT grant is for $750,000, said port director Tommy Pitts, with a local match of $250,000.

Costin said St. Joe had “graciously” agreed to provide the quarter million dollars.

“They stepped up to the plate,” Costin said. “That is the first big hurdle. We’ll be moving ahead from there.”

The Port Authority board approved a joint participation agreement with the FDOT and St. Joe to move ahead on a study of the dredging, with Pitts noting a sense of urgency in encumbering the grant dollars before the end of the fiscal year.

The money will be used for study and permitting as well as some initial engineering en route to a dredging plan, Pitts said.

The Port Authority has received qualifications to undertake the work from the two engineering firms under continuing contract with the port, but said the Port Authority should hold off until receiving clarification on several issues.

Pitts said a meeting with the county’s state legislative delegation as well as Congressman Steve Southerland would be helpful to “establish how to proceed.”

“There are a lot of questions to be answered before the process begins,” Pitts said.

Those questions are linked to the parallel paths the port is working on for the dredging, one on permitting, the other funding.

“It will be a major effort,” Pitts said.

The shipping channel has not be dredged since 1980, Pitts said.

Pitts said the shortest course to the dredging would likely be securing funding from outside the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which ultimately would have to perform the dredging.

The most time-conducive option would be to seek funding from a variety of sources, the Florida Legislature, RESTORE Act funds coming to the county, federal funds and the State Infrastructure Bank.

If the funds can be raised, and the amount would be well into the millions of dollars, those dollars could be provided to the Corps under an agreement by which the Corps, once dredging is completed under its permit, would pledge reimbursement in the future.

The other alternative would be working directly with the Corps, which would likely require far more time, Pitts said.

“I’m also concerned the dredging will require an Environmental Impact Statement, which would take at least two years,” Pitts said. “We may only need an Environmental Assessment” a far less time-consuming, intensive process.

Time is of the essence for the dredging.

In the past two months the St. Joe Company has entered into Letters of Intent that would, among other aspects, mean the shipping of some 1.125 million metric tons of wood pellets through the port by way of the AN Railway.

Both LOIs contemplate lead time for dredging to take place.

An LOI with Green Circle Bio Energy contemplates a window of roughly two years for dredging to be completed before the shipping through the Port of Port St. Joe.

A second LOI, with Enova Energy Group, indicates the company would not be ready to begin shipping pellets until the latter half of 2014 at the earliest.

But both LOIs are contingent on the completion of the dredging.

As Pitts noted those two LOIs also provide the “economic justification” for the maintenance dredging and would also likely impact a proposed FDOT grant for improvements to the AN Railway.

A FDOT grant of $5 million was announced earlier this year, but Pitts said the grant dollars were now stalled and Costin said the state is, in a sense, linking the rail grant to the dredging.

“I don’t see how they can stall it much longer,” Costin said, alluding to the announcement of the LOI with Enova.

Revenue and staff

With the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity grant dollars for the update of the port master plan expended, the Port Authority, faced with the prospect of finishing the fiscal year in September in the red led to the return of Pitts to a salary of $1 per month.

“It is important we get through the fiscal year and have some money,” Costin said. “If we continue with Tommy as director we would have a deficit. We’ve been here before, we’ll probably be back here again.

“We need him desperately. It’s obvious we can not continue after June with a director’s salary.”

Pitts agreed to return to the $1 per month he made prior to the FDEO grant.

“I understand the situation,” Pitts said. “I will continue at $1 per month.”

Nadine Lee, assistant to Pitts, will also remain onboard as a contract employee.

“I’ll work with you anyway I can,” Lee said. “My heart is in this, too.”

Costin said he was working on several things to address the lack of revenue for maintaining a presence at the Port Authority and said expressed optimism the Port Authority could get to September with money left in the bank.

“I think we’ll have a solution to our cash flow by September,” Costin said. “No guarantees, but I’m hopeful.”

Loretta Costin with the Gulf County Economic Development Alliance, Inc. applauded Pitts’ decision to continue to work for the port.

“As a member of the community and a member of the EDA, I want to thank Tommy for staying on for $1 a month,” Loretta Costin said. “He does so much and we ask so much of him. I just appreciate it.”