By Dawn Krebs
ST. LUCIE COUNTY - At one time in Fort Pierce's history, its port was the main exporter of grapefruit to Europe and the Far East.
Now, thanks to efforts from state and local officials, the port might have the opportunity to become a name for itself again.
In May, the Florida Department of Transportation held a series of public meetings to hear residents' thoughts about the Port of Fort Pierce.
Now, those same officials shared the results and proposed what the next step should be. All that was needed was a combined acceptance from both the city of Fort Pierce and St. Lucie County for FDOT to proceed with the next step, which state officials received at the Fort Pierce City Council meeting on July 16 and the St. Lucie County Commission meeting on July 17. Both governmental entities were needed, because while the county is the port authority, the city still oversees the planning and zoning of the property.
The port is currently a small cargo port with a mixed-use designation, meaning it is used for both commercial and recreational purposes. The original plan for the port was created in 2002.
The FDOT was interested in residents' opinions because it now has funds from the recently signed state budget to put toward future port development.
But the funds are only available for the development of cargo operations at the port, not recreational or mixed use.
The Port of Fort Pierce is one of 14 deepwater ports in the state. It has the potential of being designated as a strategic, intermodal system facility, which would increase funding opportunities from the state and federal government.
The results of the survey showed the port is well positioned for a number of business opportunities if infrastructure was improved, including possible yacht docking and services, a feeder service for Caribbean ports, as well as the central Florida corridor, and port-to-port feeder opportunities.
Now that it's been approved, phase two is to identify infrastructure improvements that are consistent with a mixed-use plan of recreation and industrial. Once those projects are identified, a plan update would be developed to be both business friendly and environmentally responsible.
According to the report, one of the items to be considered moving forward includes lobbying the U.S. Corps of Engineers to dredge the harbor channel to 28 feet, its original depth. A survey conducted with shipping companies showed that 80 percent of them would use the Fort Pierce port if it was dredged that deep.
Another item is establishing it as a niche shipping port. While the bigger ports will pick up the larger volumes of cargo, the Port of Fort Pierce will have the opportunity to be used for smaller shipping vessels.
What the report doesn't state is the time frame needed or estimated to achieve these goals. It also doesn't mention how well it fits with Fort Pierce's and St. Lucie County comprehensive plans. Those plans take into consideration environmental and economic factors about future development in the area.
Also, 67 acres of port property is privately owned. While FDOT mentions that it will partner with private interests to develop the necessary infrastructure, the report doesn't specifically mention with whom they might potentially partner.
Also, the Indian River Terminal reported on July 13 that the company - the only cargo operator currently at the port - was forced to lay off 34 of its 45 employees because it terminated it service between the port and the Bahamas.
Those issues led to some city and county officials to be hesitant about the plan.
"The will of the people remains to be seen because you're relying on a port master plan that about 15 years old," said City Commissioner Reggie Sessions. "We have to be careful about where we're going and how we're going to get there."
"In the economic reality of the real world, I want to try to structure something that will succeed in the real world," said City Commissioner Eddie Becht. "I am trying to unify the community in this decision."