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Port resubmits Triumph grant for dredging

By Tim Croft
The Star

The Port St. Joe Port Authority, through a host of board members and chairs, has been for nearly two decades a kind of hurry-up-and-wait proposition. 

The wait time may soon be shortened a tad. 

As Eastern Shipbuilding continues to prep its mill site bulkhead site for outfitting Staten Island ferries, the Port Authority is moving on several fronts to realize the long-sought dream of dredging the shipping channel. 

Dredging the shipping channel is seen as the key to the Port of Port St. Joe becoming operational. 

A key step was taken recently when the Port Authority resubmitted its application to the board of Triumph Gulf Coast. 

Triumph Gulf Coast was legislatively created to disburse to the eight most impacted counties the majority of fine monies, about $1.5 billion, received by the state for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

The Port Authority is seeking $15 million to assist in underwriting the cost of dredging the shipping channel to its authorized depth, said Port Authority board chair Guerry Magidson. 

The hope is that the Triumph board will take up the proposal during its Sept. 23 meeting. 

The Port Authority, working through the legislative delegation, is also seeking $20 million to be placed in the work program for the Florida Department of Transportation. 

The FDOT at one time had the $20 million in its budget, but it was pulled back. 

Combined with $10 million in Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds, the Port Authority would be able to commission the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel. 

An agreement between the Corps and Port Authority is already in place. 

Spoil areas on St. Joe Company land along the intracoastal canal and the former mill site have already been identified; the dredging project would produce more than 1 million cubic yards of silt and dirt. 

“The engineering for the spoil areas and all the permits are in place,” Magidson said. 

The linchpin, as it always has been for the port, is securing a customer or customers who commit to ship out of the port. 

Along those lines, the Port Authority is working in two directions. 

One is the so-called Gadsden to Gulf Freight Logistic Zone which was crafted and established several years ago. 

The Logistic Zone aims to take advantage of some of the region’s existing infrastructure, such as the Franklin County Airport and Port of Port St. Joe, to enhance the movement of goods. 

Jim McKnight, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Coalition, has expressed excitement over the possibilities of the project. 

In short strokes, there is a proposal on the table from a major company wishing to establish a distribution center in Gretna in Gadsden County. 

That could provide the potential customers to not only receive funding to assist the port in becoming operational but also to open the Genessee Wyoming rail line that connects the port to points north. 

“That could become a duty-free zone because of its designation as a Freight Logistic Zone,” Magidson said. 

Additionally, the Port Authority board is working with at least one other potential customer which would commit to shipping out of the port. 

The activity comes as the Florida Seaports Council, of which the Port of Port St. Joe is a member is celebrating 30 years. 

Before the pandemic hit Florida’s economy, Florida seaports showed steady trade from 2018 to 2019, according to a report from the Council.  

Florida’s total waterborne trade for 2019 was valued at $86.6 billion, with top trading partners including China, Japan, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Mexico. Additionally, cruising increased 8.7 percent over the year, with a total of 18.3 million passenger movements. 

The 2020-2024 Five-Year Seaport Mission Plan, completed annually as part of the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council’s (FSTED) mission, provides a snapshot of ports’ economic impact along with goals for the next five years. 

The Port of Port St. Joe is part of the FSTED system.  

The new report applauds the state of Florida’s investment in seaports through FSTED, which was created by the Legislature 30 years ago, and also acknowledged the difficulties of estimating the impact of COVID-19 on trade and cruising in 2020 and beyond. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the continued importance of state investment in our ports. Investing in strategic port infrastructure keeps our state and local economies healthy and moves commerce safely and efficiently 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” said Doug Wheeler, President and CEO of the Florida Ports Council, which administers FSTED.  

“Even with the uncertainty ahead, our ports have capital improvement plans that total more than $3 billion over the next five years, providing jobs and huge economic impacts in local communities.”