The future of Floridas northernmost port, in the backyard of the much larger JaxPort and shadow of Georgia behemoth Port of Savannah, is away from the water.
The Port of Fernandina, one of the states smaller ports, is limited by a neighboring historic district and protected swampland from mass on-site expansion, and has been working with its contracted operators Kinder Morgan to find off-site property to serve as cargo holds.
Meanwhile, port leadership is targeting freight companies that may be overwhelmed at the larger ports that battle for north-west and east-west trade with the widening of the Panama Canal.
Port of Fernandina Commission Chairman Danny Fullwood said they have targeted companies that require refrigerated warehousing and a telecommunications company for long-term growth.
Port of Fernandina
Where: In the St. Marys River watershed region, just south of the Florida-Georgia state line, about 25 miles northeast of Jacksonville. The port advantages are already in place, with existing access to rail and having both Interstate 10 and Interstate 95 nearby. Operating budget: $3.4 million.
Exports: Steel products, including billets, coils and rebar; machinery; forest products including Kraft linerboard, wood pulp, treated lumber, and building and construction material. Imports: Wood pulp, hardboard and building materials. Annual cargo: 645,640 tons (by comparison, Port of Jacksonville has 23.21 tons).
Governing body: Ocean Highway and Port Authority, Nassau County. The body may impose tariffs but does not have the authority to tax.
Seven questions with Port of Fernandina Commission Chairman Danny Fullwood:
SSN: Where does the port view itself in the footprint of Gov. Scott's dream to attract more growth from the Panama Canal expansion?
Fullwood: Were a small niche port. The governor has commented numerous times regarding the job-producing power of the Florida seaports. Creation of those jobs is vital to our economic recovery.We have 14 deepwaterports and a 15th has been approved down in Citrus, Port Citrus. Theyre located in every region of the state; theyre ready-made avenues for the economic growth of that particular area. And with the Panama Canal expansion, that can benefit all of our ports. Panama Canal allows these huge mega-ships to come through.
"As business grows, the small niche ports will increase, and Fernandina is one of those small niche ports. I believe it will benefit greatly.
"Once Jacksonville and Miami and some of the larger ports are able to use the Panama Canal to serve those mega-ships, they wont need the smaller niche services that the ports like Fernandina are able to provide. I think that is where we can grow and be an asset to the bigger ports and help provide those services and help Florida."
SSN: What is the desired growth in the next five to 20 years for the port?
Fullwood: Were kind of grown out, were kind of land-locked and we dont have a lot of room to grow. We border the city of Fernandina Beachs historic district, and on the other side we have marsh areas that are protected. So what we think we can do is more inland intermodal logistic centers; off-port warehousing, container drop facilities.Inlet expansion is where our port needs to go. The Legislature has addressed how Floridas ports can grow jobs, not only on the waterfront but beyond that, and we hope to get some of the funding that will enable us to do that.
SSN: What will it take to reach this growth?
Fullwood: Years ago we took on a debt to repair our port infrastructure and build new dock facilities. It was an old wooden dock and we rebuilt that with concrete. And weve really updated our facilities. That was a $38 million bond issue. Were at the point now where weve gotten that down to around $14 million. Well have that paid off in five or six years, hopefully, and well then have the money to do some of the inland things.
Right now were looking at public-private partnerships. We have an opportunity to work through the Nassau County Commission and the Economic Development Board and some private interests. We have some unique opportunities to work with our bond issues, and our charter allows us to do that.
We believe we would be able to help private industry to build the facilities and wed retain ownership through the bond issue and run the facilities and use that for expansion.
SSN: What ports and entities are offering the most competition to attract this trade?
Fullwood: We dont compete a lot with Savannah directly. Savannah is one of those bigger ports and they compete more with Jacksonville. Right now our competition is Jacksonville and some of the other ports in Florida. Brunswick Georgia does a lot of automobiles. We dont do any automobiles. Were a container-based port. We dont have a lot of competition, but our main thing is that we do forest products and we do a lot of steel.
SSN: What is Florida doing to counter this competition?
Fullwood: Our port is not big enough to compete with the bigger ports. We provide economic development and jobs for the people in this county.Weve gotten some business from Jacksonville, some smaller ships theyve recommended to us. We work with them the best we can. In the economic development of Nassua County you have a comprehensive plan, and as of right now we dont have a port element in that comprehensive plan. That is one of the things were working on right now.
SSN: Who are the biggest champions of the port?
Fullwood: There is, of course, Kinder Morgan and Val Schwec (Kinder Morgan's commercial director). As far as being a champion, Lake Ray is the one in the Legislature who works with us most of all,he being from Jacksonville, and his father one time had a lot to do with the port over here. He is, I think, a champion for the whole state. We really need his expertise and his drive.
SSN: What and who are some of the biggest hurdles facing the port's expansion?
Fullwood: The biggest hurdle is getting the port element in the comprehensive plan. That will give us access toFIC money and money that the state commission gives out to all ports. Wed be able to borrow from that if we need to. We will be meeting shortly with a private company that wants to do some expansion and create some facilities here and use our abilities to do a bond issue. ... That's real interesting to them and hopefully we can work with them and provide ways for them to get funds.
The first installment of this series: "Port Canaveral Bulking Cargo and Cruise Passengers" can be found here.
The second: "Port Backers Offer Vision to Make Florida the Global Hub" can be found here.
The third: "Gateway to the Caribbean Seeks Inland Expansion" can be found here.
The fourth: "Port of Miami is Digging for Growth" can be found here.
The fifth: "Key West: Port of Cruises" can be found here.
(This is the sixth in a weekly series with port directors in Florida.)
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (772) 215-9889.