The Port St. Joe Port Authority recently held a formal stakeholders meeting to reach the first significant milestone in updating of the port master plan.

The Port of Port St. Joe is undertaking an update of its 2008 master plan, the work funded by a $70,000 grant from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The master plan update is essential as a partnership with The St. Joe Company takes shape on port development. The master plan will reflect changes from four years ago, including the addition of the old Arizona Chemical site (in port hands) as well as lands owned by St. Joe within the planning area.

“This sets up where we are today, where we want to be in the future and a skeleton of how we get there,” said Port Authority board member Patrick Jones. “This is the map.”

And in completing the stakeholders meeting – an opportunity for oral or written comments on issues pertaining to the port and its development – the Port Authority will also be able to draw down the initial grant payment and provide some income for port director Tommy Pitts and assistant Nadine Lee, who have been working for months on what amounts to a volunteer basis.

Pitts will do most of the work on the master plan update in-house with assistance from St. Joe. “Ports are one of the governor’s priorities,” said Ana Richmond with the DEO Division of Community Development, Office of Community Planning. “There is so much opportunity here.”

That opportunity was reflected in statements from various stakeholders attending the meeting.

“The Apalachee Regional Planning Council has always thought the Port of Port St. Joe was essential to the economic development of the region,” said Bruce Ballister with the ARPC. “The future holds an awful lot of promise.”

Ballister said that an emphasis is being placed nationally on so-called “shovel-ready” projects and added that it was essential the port perform as much ground work as possible to lure tenants. He said once the port has attracted its first customer, that would only raise the lure of the port for other businesses.

“We are ready to provide assistance for anything within our ability,” Ballister said. “The port needs to be ready and kept ready and we are here to help where we can.”

Jones said Ballister’s point was on target.

“With the competitive environment we have nobody wants to want two years to have the port shovel ready,” Jones said. “It’s incredibly important we have not just shovel-ready, but pad-ready is essential.”

The master plan update will travel back to the 2003 initial master plan, which included commercial activities in the port basin area, including import and export from Raffield and Wood Fisheries.

That offers two advantages: increasing the diversity of port activities and strengthening the case for the Port of Port St. Joe to maintain its designation in the Florida Strategic Intermodal System (SIS).

Some 75 percent of Florida Department of Transportation discretionary funding is earmarked for members of the SIS.

The Port of Port St. Joe was designated an emerging SIS destination four years ago and is applying for an extension of that designation, which expires in the spring.

“Everything seems to be moving along,” said Jason Alderman of the FDOT District III office in Chipley, which is making the case for the Port of Port St. Joe. “I think we are ahead of the game. We expect a favorable answer (from the main FDOT office).”

Dane Caldwell with the St. Joe company expressed its company’s support, which was originally sketched in a collaboration agreement signed early this year between the company and Port Authority to work together to develop the port, including the roughly 300 combined acres in port or St. Joe hands.

“The St. Joe Company is committed to partnering with the Port Authority,” Caldwell said, “to unlock the potential of this port and we look forward to many successful years.”

County Commissioner Warren Yeager asked if a $200,000 economic development loan provided by the Board of County Commissioners to the Port Authority last year might be leveraged as a local match for additional funding to more speedily move port development.

“Gulf County is committed to this port,” Yeager said.

Richmond said the updated master plan would be ready, after an expedited review process at the state level, for inclusion in the city of Port St. Joe comprehensive plan sometime in the next fiscal year.