Article by: Tim Croft

For the full story visit: The Star

For years, the Port St. Joe Port Authority has operated with something approaching a hurry-up-to-wait momentum.

For years, the Port St. Joe Port Authority has operated with something approaching a hurry-up-to-wait momentum.

Now, some giddyup is evident in the hurry-up.

With Triumph Gulf Coast legislation signed into law and the first payment, of which Gulf County receives $15 million, headed to the bank, with $12 million in state appropriations headed to the port and rail line connecting it to markets north, the Port of Port St. Joe is getting down to brass tacks.

Whether a road to accommodate the port’s first customer in decades or the final design, and cost estimates, for spoil disposal infrastructure needed to facilitate the dredging of the federally-authorized shipping channel, the many moving parts to port development are speeding up.

“Everybody knows time is of the essence,” said Warren Yeager, executive director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition.

Yeager was speaking of construction of a road to the bulkhead on the old paper mill site, but he may as well have been referring to the broader port development picture, which was added more focus recently when the Board of County Commissioners entered into a partnership agreement with the St. Joe Company.

The agreement is focused on activity and growth opportunities at the Port of Port St. Joe and provides the umbrella language for future joint projects to boost port development.

In the short-term, that agreement, which largely mirrored an earlier collaboration agreement between St. Joe and the Port Authority, is aimed at facilitating the construction of a road to connect the former Arizona Chemical site to the paper mill site bulkhead.

That would allow a wood-chip shipper with agreements with the Port Authority and St. Joe to begin moving equipment and cargo to the bulkhead as the base of operations takes shape.

Given that the county, as staff remarked during a recent special meeting, can undertake the road building portion, at least a temporary road, they were a natural partner.

“We have a paying customer with no access (to the bulkhead),” said Port Authority board member Eugene Raffield, who is also currently dual-titled as “port director” until the Port Authority has the wherewithal to hire a full-time director.

“That road, to me, is the thing, you have to have it. This thing needs to be done now rather than later.”

Yeager said the county’s agreement with St. Joe will provide a mechanism for the BOCC, Florida Department of Transportation and St. Joe to explore “the quickest way we can do this.”

While the optimal route for that road would be below the overpass of the George Tapper Bridge rather than onto Industrial Road, a St. Joe representative said the immediate the goal is a road; once parties are operational the preferred route would become the focus.

Those parties, Yeager added, almost certainly include Eastern Shipbuilding.

The Bay County-based company, which last year won a $10 billion U.S. Coast Guard contract, has for several years leased a portion of the paper mill site bulkhead and also owns property along the Intracoastal Waterway.

The state budget just signed by Gov. Rick Scott includes $5 million for the construction of a dry dock facility Eastern would use to outfit and repair vessels.

The state budget also includes $1 million for dredging in the turning basin to accommodate the dry-dock operations.

And that dredging is a positive as that portion of the shipping channel, within the turning basin and up to the bulkhead, is not within the scope of the broader dredging project.

St. Joe officials have said that the turning basin portion of the dredging would be undertaken once other pieces fell into place.

As for the overall dredging project, Tommy Pitts with Mott MacDonald, the Port Authority’s engineers, said the company is nearly down to creating the design documents for spoil infrastructure in order to put the project out for bid.

Much of the work in recent months, Pitts added, has been about massaging the project in order to bring costs down.

And that has succeeded in bringing the price tag once pegged at nearly $57 million down to $44 million.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which will contract out the dredge work, provided a cost projection of $34 million, so there remains work to do, Pitts said.

Part of the cost-savings came from pulling back the initial dredge from 36-37 feet, the authorized depth, to 34-35 feet, which would cut costs while not being an obstacle to any shipping the port might be able to lure.

Also massaged was the timeline for building infrastructure, tying that timeline to dredging.

“We’ve been concerned all along about the cost of the (spoil infrastructure) berm work,” Pitts said. “We believe we now have the most economical design.”

Triumph Gulf Coast, Yeager said in answer to a question from the Port Authority board, remains the most realistic source for the funds to dredge the shipping channel.

Another positive sign for port development was the recent crafting of a plan to create a freight logistics zone in a four-county area bounded by Gulf, Franklin, Liberty and Gadsden counties.

That plan offers a platform for pursuing FDOT funding to facilitate economic development projects in the region and, as with the BOCC-St. Joe agreement, is centered in significant part on the Port of Port St. Joe.

“The plan speaks a lot of the port,” Yeager said. “There are a lot of opportunities within that plan.

“Everybody looks at that site, that port, as the economic driver not just for the county but the entire region.”