Rebirth of a Port

Port St. Joe ventures once again into deep waters

Once a boomtown and a candidate for THE capital of Florida, Port St. Joe now is one of the state’s smaller towns, with a population of about 3,600. Situated at the edge of St. Joseph Bay, it has all the charm of a coastal village, with an annual shrimp boil held at the St. Joseph Bay Preserves and an Easter egg hunt held every year at 8th Street Park.

The area’s coastline and new resorts attract visitors from far and wide. But while tourists enjoy vacationing here in the summer, Port St. Joe’s residents suffer from underemployment, a condition common to all of Gulf County. A study sponsored by the Gulf Coast Work Force Board revealed that 67 percent of Gulf County residents are underemployed, meaning the skills they have and training they’ve received exceed the amount called for by their current jobs. An additional 18.7 percent of the working-age population in Gulf County is not working due to unemployment, retirement, disabilities or an inability to find a job that suits their skills and training.

Over the years, companies have come and gone, but no one has really done much to solve the problem.

A paper mill opened in the 1930s and helped sustain the local economy until it closed in 1998. It hasn’t been replaced. The town has a fine deep seawater port, which had been used most recently to ship paper items. But after the mill closed, the port closed too.

Now, a decade after the port’s closing, the St. Joe Company is stepping in with a plan to reopen the port and revitalize Port St. Joe.

The company has been building various residential developments in the area, as well as resorts and industrial parks and was instrumental in bringing a new hospital to the area. In 2008 a long-term agreement was signed allowing the Port Authority of St. Joe to lease a 63-acre site on St. Joseph Bay, to be combined with 68 acres of contiguous port-owned property. The agreement will allow the port to reopen and expand its capacity.

The site won’t be ready to receive ships for an estimated three years, said Port Director Tommy Pitts.

As for the types of goods that will be shipped in and out of the port, Pitts said several companies have sent out letters of inquiry indicating an interest in using the port.

“Some are for industrial supplies like aggregate,” he said. “We’ve had numerous inquiries about renewable energy … The types of inquiries I’ve gotten have ranged from wood chips and wood pellets to biodiesel and ethanol.”

This could be good news for Port St. Joe, as reopening the port could create new jobs for the people who live there, as well as grow the town by bringing in new residents.

“Our goal is to create well-paying jobs for people now,” Pitts said. “The long-term goal is so our kids can grow up and can get good jobs. That’s not the case now; they have to leave.”

A number of Gulf County officials are likewise pleased at the prospect of job creation and an economic boost for their area.

“We think it can be the economic engine that drives not only the city and county, but the region,” said Gulf County Commissioner Warren Yeager.

Local businessmen, including real estate agents, agree.

“The feeling is that it will provide a certain amount of economic stimulus for the area,” said Gloria Salinard, association executive of the Realtors Association of Franklin and Southern Gulf Counties. “There will be employees, of course, that will be needed, and they will be moving into the area and hopefully buying homes.”

In addition to leasing the land for the port, the St. Joe Company has entered into an agreement for the Genesee & Wyoming rail line to operate the Apalachicola Northern Railroad under a 10-year lease with three 10-year renewals. The 96-mile railroad connects Port St. Joe with the national rail system in Chattahoochee and would allow goods that arrive on ships in Port St. Joe to be loaded onto freight trains and transferred anywhere in America.

Jerry Ray, senior vice president of external affairs for the St. Joe Company, said his company’s interests and the interests of the community overlap.

“We’re looking for ways to create economic activity,” he said. “We’re land developers, and so where there are more people with more jobs, they’re going to want more houses and townhouses. They’re going to want more places to shop. We make our living by servicing the needs of people in their daily lives. So if there’s more economic activity, they will need the things we do.”

Ray said the new port will revitalize a bit of history.

“This is a port that’s coming back,” he said. “It’s part of the heart and soul of Port St. Joe.”

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2010, Forgotten Coast Archive