Site preparation continued along the former paper mill bulkhead with Eastern Shipbuilding’s long-awaited expansion into Gulf County likely early next year.

During a special meeting Monday, the Board of County Commissioners approved a change-order under the Joint Partnership Agreement with Eastern for $231,786 to construct three electrical buildings on its bulkhead site.

Engineer Clay Smallwood said the warehouse on the site had been completed and the last major step for the site was the power.

The plan is to build three 25-feet by 25-feet buildings, Smallwood added.

The money comes from a $6 million state legislative appropriation the county received several years ago to facilitate Eastern’s expansion into Gulf County.

Assistant Administrator Warren Yeager said discussions with Eastern officials indicate the company hoped to be situated in the county “by the end of the first quarter or early in the second quarter” of the coming year.

The announced plans have been for Eastern to use the bulkhead site as a outfitting/maintenance facility, with the first order of business to be outfitting three Staten Island ferries.

The first of those vessels was a launched by Eastern from its Bay County facility just before Thanksgiving.

“All things are moving forward and we’ll soon have some people working out there,” Yeager said.

How many remained unclear as estimates provided publicly have ranged from 50-70 jobs created by the arrival of an operating Eastern facility.

Eastern has leased the bulkhead site, and 20 acres of uplands, from the St. Joe Company for several years.

Meanwhile, lobbying continues as the Port St. Joe Port Authority and county seek funding to dredge the shipping channel and create an operational port, after years of discussions and efforts by various regimes.

The Port Authority still holds a permit for dredging as well as engineering and design for the infrastructure required for spoil disposal, which alone was an investment of more than $1 million.

One focus will be $20 million the Florida Department of Transportation had at one time tentatively budgeted for dredging, said lobbyist Chris Holley.

He also noted timing might be right as State Sen. Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee), whose district includes the county, will be entering his last session of the Florida Legislature in January.

The Port Authority is also pursuing Triumph Gulf Coast grant funds for dredging, the costs of which have come down since first estimated going on five years ago, but which still exceed $30 million.

Salinas Park

The BOCC formally accepted conveyance from the Trust for Public Lands of the additional acreage in Salinas Park bayside.

The Trust had purchased the site, a little more than seven acres, from the Patronis family and, in partnership with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, funded amenities to the new area.

Those amenities included an elevated boardwalk with observation stations and new restrooms along the bayside and pickleball courts on the Gulf side.

Those pickleball courts have been completed, but the land had to be conveyed to the county for insurance purposes, Yeager said, before the public could be allowed the play.

The pickleball courts, he added, would likely be open to the public by the weekend or first of next week.

In addition to purchasing the land and funding construction of the new amenities, the Trust also provided 10 years of maintenance funding.

Gulf Aire sewer

While there was no discussion of the date the city of Port St. Joe proposed for a workshop, commissioners said they would take a step back and hoped “cooler heads” would prevail over the Gulf Aire tension between the two boards.

The county had requested a workshop to discuss that and other issues surrounding water and sewer, the city had provided a date later this month, but county commissioners were clear Monday they wanted to wait until the turn of the calendar.

Commissioner Phil McCroan said he was not aware, and it was not previously discussed in the county meeting, that the city had indeed received an offer to take over the system but could not come to agreement on rates with the owner.

In effect, the deal on the table, at least the one discussed publicly, was that the city would take the effluent, not the plant, for treatment and bill the owner of the plant for the total usage.

However, the owner wanted wholesale water rates which the city does not have and which they had sought guidance for from their consultant on water and sewer rates.

“No matter what, we have to do what is good for the people,” McCroan said. “Buying the sewer plant out there was not a good deal.

“A lot has been said. I think we need to back-up and have a workshop.”

The issue surrounds $500,000 in RESTORE Act dollars.

Initially, the county earmarked that money as a down payment on the purchase of the plant; in later discussions the project became eliminating the plant and linking to Port St. Joe sewer.

The county has stated it would pay for the required lift station and pipe to link to the main trunk line that already runs near the plant, it just wants the plant, characterized as “substandard,” gone.