St. Joe Company President and CEO Jorge Gonzalez included in his Tuesday presentation to the Board of County Commissioners a proposal.

The company, he said, would like to enter a formal public-private partnership with the county on a feasibility study concerning an airport.

Gonzalez suggested a formal partnership under a state law governing such partnerships, the same avenue used by Eastern Shipbuilding as it moved ahead in expanding its operations into Gulf County.

The law allows certain aspects of the partnership’s efforts to remain confidential for a period of time.

The county had already taken steps toward contracting for a feasibility study, costing less than $20,000, to be performed by a company that has done work at the Apalachicola Airport.

Gonzalez said St. Joe would be interested in picking up half the tab for the study under a partnership agreement with the county.

“We are willing to work under (a PPP) for an airport,” Gonzalez said.

No specific parcel has been identified: that would be part of the study, said Assistant County Administrator Warren Yeager, who noted Gulf County is among the few counties that do not have a paved runway.

Gonzalez also updated commissioners on several efforts by the company, which he said is committed to economic development as much after Hurricane Michael as before the storm.

“Our commitment to (creating quality jobs for the region) is as great as ever,” he said.

The company was encouraged, he said, by the turning of dirt and site preparation on the 20 acres along the former paper mill bulkhead leased for years by Eastern Shipbuilding.

Eastern is to use the bulkhead site as an outfitting yard for three Staten Island ferries the company is building.

A start date for the start of Eastern operations, Gonzalez said, he did not know.

“We hope they can start operations at the facility soon,” he said.

Plans for rebuilding the Port St. Joe Marina, he added, will not impact development of the Port of Port St. Joe, a project to which the company remains fully committed.

“There is a reason I began my update with economic development,” he told commissioners.

Marina plans include integration with downtown Port St. Joe, especially Reid Ave., as well as a hotel, shops and possibly residential housing, Gonzalez said.

“We don’t want to just rebuild what we had, but expand on it,” he said. “We want to rebuild it bigger and better.”

The company’s plans for the marina were to be put before the city of Port St. Joe’s Planning and Development Review Board earlier this month but were pulled from consideration days before a special hearing.

At WindMark Beach, with its building partner D.R. Horton, the company is currently developing an additional 94 lots.


Prison rebuild

Commissioners also received an update from Warden Scott Payne at Gulf Correctional Institution.

Payne said contractors had largely left the main unit and estimated the prison would be ready to house inmates in two or three weeks.

Payne hoped no later than the first of July for the first inmates to return to the main prison, with four or five dorms nearing completion, but a major issue was workforce due to scattering by Michael.

The rebuilding focus has now turned to the annex in Howard Creek and the remediation that will be needed before rebuilding starts.

“The (Department of Corrections’) goal is to get both units up and running,” Payne said.

There is particular urgency for the county with the 2020 census looming.

Prior to Hurricane Michael, the county inmate population accounted for more than 3,000 people, 3,000 people that will not be counted as part of the county’s population unless they are housed in the county.

“That is a 10-year penalty,” said Administrator Michael Hammond, noting federal funding is based on county population at the most recent census.

Whatever the number is in 2020 will not change until after the 2030 census, Commissioner Ward McDaniel said.

County officials were recently in Washington, D.C., to, among other items, receive an extension on the institutional count for the census.

The lobbying bought the county two months; the institutional census in Gulf County will be in April.