Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 27, 2021

From the Port’s RAISE grant application:

The estimated 83 new direct port jobs related to the project, paying $6.5 million in wages, and resulting in $12.9 million in re-spending and local consumption, as well as most of the 246 construction jobs, will be largely filled by residents of these communities – estimated by port management at 90% of new jobs to be filled. The port has a vested interest in maintaining workforce motivation and generating a strong talent pipeline as volumes ramp up and new capital investments are deployed, and one way to optimize motivation is to create more employment – good, solid, family- supporting jobs averaging $78,000 per year (benefits incl). Most of these new jobs don’t require a college education; they simply require dedication and a solid work ethic. The terminal operator has a strong system in place for on-the-job training that ensures the skill sets developed on the job align with special requirements for handling specialized forest products. (Source: Martin Associates, Worldwide Terminals Fernandina.)

At the July 6, 2021 Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) meeting, World Wide Terminals CEO and Port Director Christopher Ragucci requested a letter of support from the City to endorse two Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) grant requests.  Copies of the grants were not provided at the time, but Ragucci explained that OHPA was seeking federal funding to  modify and enhance antiquated facilities, providing for expansion and modernization of the Port’s on-dock warehouses, rail capacity and truck gates.

After considerable discussion about the lack of specificity, potential for expanding the Port’s footprint and the City’s ability for input into any of the plans, Commissioners voted 3-2 to provide the endorsing letter.  Both Mayor Mike Lednovich and Commissioner Chip Ross voted against such endorsement, citing lack of detail, trust issues and outstanding litigation.

Recently, the Fernandina Observer obtained a copy of the RAISE grant, which consists of 32 pages plus appendices.  RAISE, which stands for Rebuilding American Infrastructure for Sustainability and Equity, is a grant program of the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Port is seeking $15M for projects cited in the grant request.

What was not explained to City Commissioners prior to their vote to endorse the grant request:  The Port will seek taking over City rights-of-way in fulfilling its plans laid out in the grant application.

Background

Few could argue that Port upgrades are needed. Under previous terminal management there was steady decline in the Port of Fernandina’s cargo volumes from 2000 to 2018. Under new direction by Worldwide Terminals, the Port of Fernandina increased its tonnage from 195,483 MT in 2019 to 273,897 MT in 2020, a 40% increase. It is on track to grow tonnage to 414,693 MT in 2021, representing a 112% growth rate in just under two years. The port’s warehouses will be a full capacity utilization at the end of 2021. 

But over the Port’s history, there has been an uneasy and sometimes antagonistic relationship with the City of Fernandina Beach.  Despite assurances at the time of the Port’s creation that the operation would not expand beyond its initial footprint into City industrial and residential areas, there have been several attempts to do so.  There have been disputes between the City and the Port over the need for the Port to obtain building permits for internal improvements.  Most recently the City and the Port have been at loggerheads over the continuing obligation of the Port to provide an annual payment of $50K in lieu of property taxes.  That dispute is currently under litigation.

Plans outlined in the grant application

According to the Executive Summary presented in the RAISE grant application:

This $15 million project significantly improves breakbulk and container capacity at the Port of Fernandina. It will redevelop the Port warehouse complex by expanding three warehouses on and adjacent to the Terminal’s existing footprint. It will move, expand, and modernize the existing gate facility from two lanes (one in and one out) to four lanes, to increase cargo access and egress. It will lengthen the railcar siding platform and construct 20 new truck loading bays at the warehouse complex. In addition, it will replace a small office building, and construct container yard improvements incorporating a tidewater management system with partial new bulkhead and raised section of yard. It will also reinforce part of the yard to better accommodate RTGs. 

The expanded facilities will accommodate 750,000 tons of breakbulk cargo and 50,000 TEUs per year. 

Project details include:

  • Property Acquisition: Acquires Broome Street property, at .85 acres, and rights of way on Dade Street and North Second Street.
  • Warehouse 1 Extension and Truck Transload Capacity: Constructs 62,850-square-foot extension to the south of Warehouse 1, infilling a section of Dade Street; this increases capacity to 139,900 square feet and adds 20 new truck loading bays. It also includes 10 American-made specialty automated electric truck loaders and 10 propane forest products forklifts.
  • Warehouse 3 Extension: Extends Warehouse 3 by 30,400 square feet, almost doubling capacity.
  • Office: This project demolishes a small existing office and relocates it and replaces it.
  • Gate: Extends Gate, adding one additional inbound and one additional outbound lane, to secure
    assets and allow efficient truck access and turns.
  • Container Yard Improvements: Constructs a 200+ foot bulkhead and elevates the Northern portion
    of the contiguous container terminal yard in a tidewater management system designed to
    accommodate rising sea levels. It also reinforces pathways across the yard for RTG movements.
  • Utilities: Prepares for and installs a new underground storm water vault and new trench drains, as well as utilities, lighting, and security systems to enhance the Port’s warehousing and transloading
    capacity.
  • Rail: Extends the railcar platform from 11 to 15 railcar lengths.
  • EPD: Project includes all engineering, design and permitting. 

Analysis

There are many positive outcomes to be achieved, should this grant be awarded.  The Port will be able to tie into resiliency efforts of the City of Fernandina Beach by reducing vulnerability to flooding. There will be more jobs provided, along with enhancing the economic benefits to the local community. The improvements will take trucks off the road. According to the information in the grant application, “At current port cargo volumes, a switch to direct-ocean export will remove 15,000 to 16,000 trucks per year from the roadways between Fernandina and Savannah. That is 41 trucks every day. When warehouse capacity and all-water services improve and this business accelerates, the savings in vehicle miles traveled will grow quickly.”

But it is also clear that some elements of the grant application were not vetted by the City of Fernandina Beach, specifically the Port’s acquisition of City rights-of-way.  According to the grant application, “Street right-of-way acquisitions are required. Public street sections that cross between port warehouses are not secured, creating critical safety and security considerations. The situation is untenable. The right-of-way transfer will correct a gravely dangerous situation and further secure the US Border.”  The sentence that follows this sentence reads:  “A city letter of support from the City is in Appendix C.”

Ragucci did not raise the issue of encroaching into City rights-of-way when he sought the City’s endorsement of the grant.  From the augmented photo included in the grant application, it appears that Dade Street would dead end into the Port as part of the plan.

Language in the grant application continues: “The Port has a strong relationship with the City and a commonality of interest related to public safety and a secure US border on the streets in question. There is a backup preliminary design plan that phases the project work to accommodate delays in obtaining right of ways, or even failure to obtain. Project functionality changes very minimally.  The project will enhance cargo and border security by eliminating an open-to-the-public street in the midst of the warehouses, and by moving and expanding the gate which does not currently secure the entire complex.”

Should the grant application advance through the approval channels, there will be opportunities for both the City and the Port to iron out territorial questions.  From the application language quoted above, it would appear that the Port has contingency plans, should the parties not be able to reach agreement.

 

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Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_61801)
1 year ago

Devil is always in the detail. The failure to provide the City with the content of the grant application prior to requesting the letter of support is another example of the lack of transparency by Worldwide Terminals and OHPA. I am sure both those parties will have some excuse for not mentioning the ROW acquisition, street closures and additional property acquisition.

I would like to understand if the project is mainly about warehouse expansion, how are the average compensation figures of $78,000 (assumes salary of $52,000 and benefits valued at $26,000) arrived at? How does that compare to current compensation averages?

Talking through both side of their mouth with the claim of reducing truck traffic but at the same time indicating the grant would support 20 new truck loading bays. Those trucks aren’t going to magically appear but will be lumbering down 8th Street.

Chuck Hall, time to mobilize the forces again!

Tammi Kosack
Tammi Kosack (@guest_61807)
1 year ago

Agree Dave Lott! It is incomprehensible the Commission would send a two page glowing letter (by Vice Mayor) in support of this project without seeing the plan. In fact the OHPA board did not even have advance copy of the submitted application prior to its submission.

Lack of transparency aside, there are alarming consequences to this request, the first being the safety issues involved in eliminating access off Front St at Dade. All vehicles North of Centre will need to find a place to make a K turn in order to leave. It is treacherous as it is now, before any Front St improvements. God forbid an emergency vehicle needs access anywhere from Centre to Dade.

And how can a plan purport to eliminate emissions and truck traffic when the front gate has spaces for 8 semis to idle just feet from the Historic Discrict homes, with a 25 bay loading dock just behind? This will decimate the values of homes in this area.

The application encroaches not only on City Right of Way, but into the residential and Historic District areas on both the northeast side (which includes removal of the Historic Customs House) and the southeast side with the acquisition (after requested demolition of the Historic Front street warehouse) on the south side. This is against our Comprehensive Plan.

Lastly, it is curious the operator claims to be working on razor thin margins (can’t pay taxes, no PILOT) yet will front the entire match of $3 million. I smell bananas…remember Staten Island.

Betsie Huben
Betsie Huben (@guest_61808)
1 year ago

Here we have yet another episode of lack of transparency in the ongoing soap opera that is the Port and its operations. The fact that “Ragucci did not raise the issue of encroaching into City rights-of-way when he sought the City’s endorsement of the grant” was completely disingenuous and is reason enough to rescind the letter of support previously approved by the City commissioners. Who wants to make that motion at the next FBCC motion?   

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_61831)
1 year ago
Reply to  Betsie Huben

Ragucci’s disingenuousness should be taken at face value. He has lost our confidence. A house cleaning is in order.

chuck hall
chuck hall (@guest_61809)
1 year ago

While parts of this plan are good, the impact to the surrounding residential area is problematic. The expansion of the gates will cut the Historic District in half, isolating neighbors from one another.

The gate expansion is of great concern to the homeowners here. We have created a wonderful neighborhood over the decades, and now the port intends to push this new construction project right through the middle of our neighborhood.

This expansion of the port industrial use is the breaking of a promise not to cross 3rd Street, with port expansion. This isn’t a new debate, the Port has practiced this ‘industrial creep’ for years.

The other expansion is the area South of Calhoun St. This is another broken promise that the Port would never expand beyond Calhoun St Southward.

Also, the Port plans include closing the public streets. Really? This isn’t new either. Closing Dade, and 2nd streets? That’s being a bit grabby isn’t it? To think that one can just ‘possess’ these much needed public streets is not reasonable. We already don;t have enough access to Front Street as it stands now!

The fact that the City Commission agreed to a letter of approval for the grant is beyond crazy. The Port has worked hard to make certain that it does not pay it’s fair share for city services. They already owe us years of the $50,000 annual fee. The Port is certainly laughing about how foolish the Commission was that night.

Jobs? Please…. most of the technically high paying jobs are staffed by people that don’t even live in Nassau County. the rest are just dock hands paid a typical blue collar wage.

The Port never showed high employment, and won’t ever do so. This port is so small, it will likely never turn a profit, and thus it MUST survive on grants.

The port will continue to make small expansion efforts within the Historic District. This won’t ever stop.

It is up to the residents of Fernandina Beach to protect the Historic District and the residential areas here, forcing the port to honor it’s commitments to being a good neighbor.

With $15,000,000.00 in hand, the Port can run roughshod over the City. Don’t think for a moment that it won’t do whatever it has to to succeed and profit. That is understandable. It is up to YOU, the citizens here, to protect what is left of this meager little part of the Historic District.

Your neighbors and friends are counting on you.

Please stay tuned for upcoming public meetings to address this expansion project.

Thanks for reading.

Tracy Whipple
Tracy Whipple (@guest_61811)
1 year ago

If there will be a significant decrease in truck traffic volume, why do they need to take over city streets and create a truck staging area on 3rd & Dade?

chuck hall
chuck hall (@guest_61813)
1 year ago

https://www.portoffernandina.org/leadership

use the link to voice your opinion to the port commissioners.

Suzanne Dixon
Suzanne Dixon (@guest_61814)
1 year ago

Remember that Judge Fahlgren just ruled that OHPA “may have a statutory right to cancel its agreement with Nassau Terminals for failure to comply with its public records obligation”.

John Goshco
John Goshco (@guest_61830)
1 year ago
Reply to  Suzanne Dixon

Regardless of whether the contract is terminated or not,

1- They are still required (under Florida Law and the judge’s order) to provide the requested documents to Dr. Ross and

2- They may be liable to the County for current and back property taxes. (Case pending)

Terminating the contract by either party does not relieve them of their lawful obligations.

Danny Ferreira
Danny Ferreira (@guest_61816)
1 year ago

Florida’s Strategic Intermodal System Plan, to move container traffic off of I-95 to a barge through our city must be stopped. This business model is only for money and politics. We must protect the future of our city. We have alternatives. A permanent cruise line facility or a full service facility to service and repair naval and private vessels, having a federal statute of law which require naval (Kings Bay) repair to be service at the nearest facility.

Dave Lott
Dave Lott (@guest_61820)
1 year ago
Reply to  Danny Ferreira

Danny, while I understand your point, when the port idea was first raised, there was adamant opposition to having dry dock and repair facilities due to the environmental concerns that such operations create. I think the facility down at Clapboard Creek (BAE Systems) has plenty of capacity for that work.

Robert S. Warner, Jr.
Robert S. Warner, Jr. (@guest_61832)
1 year ago

Those in our City Commission that voted to approve/support this, without really thinking it through – or doing some homework before throwing their votes out there – need to be held accountable.

mike spino
mike spino (@guest_61889)
1 year ago

To comment to USDOT on the Port of Fernandina, Florida RAISE grant application:

mike spino
mike spino (@guest_61890)
1 year ago

The next Ocean, Highway and Port Authority monthly meeting is Wednesday August 11, 2021 at 6 PM at the James Page Government Complex. Located at: 96135 Nassau Place Yulee, FL 32097

Public comments are taken at the beginning of the meeting. 

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