Submitted by Suanne Z. Thamm
Reporter – News Analyst
July 9, 2021
Port Director Christopher Ragucci appeared before the Fernandina Beach City Commission (FBCC) on July 6, 2021 to seek a letter of endorsement for the Port’s upcoming applications for two Federal Infrastructure Grants that can provide funds for Port Improvement Projects – The RAISE Grant, and the PIDP Grant. If funded, the project, which has not yet been specifically designed, will provide expansion and modernization of the Port’s on-dock warehouses, rail capacity and truck gates.
He eventually got what he was seeking on a 3-2 vote, while both Mayor Mike Lednovich and Commissioner Chip Ross declined to support the request.
In a letter provided to Commissioners in advance of the meeting, Ragucci answered specific questions and elaborated on the benefits of the grants, should they be awarded. He wrote:
The Port will be seeking approx. $15 million in funds form either program. The project, which has not been specifically designed, will revolve around expansion and modernization of the Port’s on‐dock warehouses, rail capacity and truck gates. If completed, the project will generate over $250 million in economic benefits exclusive of additional jobs and the associated wages and benefits. These benefits include reduced emissions, increased safety, elimination of millions of truck miles from local, state and federal roads, less damage and wear to highway infrastructure, and consumer cost savings due to improved economic competitiveness. (Source: Martin Assoc. Economic Impact Model for the Port of Fernandina).
The project will create 210 new jobs in the State of Florida, most of them in Nassau County, including direct, indirect and induced jobs, including 85 additional jobs at the Port. The annualized wages for the new jobs, exclusive of benefits, is $6.5 million, and $12.9 million annually in re‐spending and local consumption. (Source: Martin Assoc. Economic Impact Model for the Port of Fernandina).
Finally, should we receive an award under either of the Grants, we will be able to address the relocation of the historic Customs House building at Dade and North 3rd Street.
Simply put, the project will be transformational for the Port and our community, and we welcome the City’s support
Commissioner Chip Ross directed a barrage of questions at Ragucci, seeking specifics where it appeared that only generalities had been provided. He claimed that the grant review required the specifics. Ragucci countered saying that such specifics would be developed as the grant request moved through the approval process, but that they were not required at this stage. Ragucci stated that between the conditional award and the final award, all stakeholders — especially the city — would be involved. Without support from local government, the grants would not be awarded.
Ragucci said that 85 percent of the improvements would be on existing Port property. The remaining 15 percent would be located on a waterfront lot owned by the Hall Development Company. He said that he hoped that the community would be supportive of these grants because “hundreds, if not thousands” of other entities will be competing for them.
“Just because they select us as a potential awardee does not mean that we will get the funding,” Ragucci said. “We are asking you to take a leap of faith with us that we can get these federal dollars.”
Ragucci laid out a scenario where he can build on the niche element of the Port to expand opportunities and increase rail transport. “We would be expanding our capacity, creating economic benefits while alleviating truck traffic. It’s a good opportunity, and I seek your support in good faith. The City will have more than enough time to assess the specifics to accept or reject the project.”
Commissioner David Sturges tried to clarify the Port’s intent should it receive the grants. Ragucci spoke about expanding warehouse space inside the Port perimeter. He said that the Port would be expanding on its core business to move more of the existing products handled and would not be adding hazardous materials.
Mayor Mike Lednovich said he wanted to address “the elephant in the room.” “The Port owes us $50,000 for the years 2018 and 2019. That is not in dispute. We are suing them for future payments: 2020, 2021 and going forward. We wanted to expand our marina to the north, so we asked the Port to decommission the [unused] federal channel, as sponsors of the channel. They denied it. This is not win-win; this is not good faith. It is win for the Port and lose for the City. And if you think that is going to change, I have a bridge in London that I’d like to sell you.
“I will not vote for this, but if it does pass, I want any letter to indicate who voted against it.”
Ross told Commissioners, “I have gone to almost every Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) meeting for the past 4 years. I have heard on multiple occasions that OHPA is not required to follow City rules or regulations.” He indicated that he has little faith in what Port representatives say, based on his experience in trying to obtain public records from them.
Vice Mayor Len Kreger viewed the situation somewhat differently. “It’s kind of an interesting concept that we could actually get along with somebody and work with them. We don’t do that well in the City. So this letter just says that they want to do what they are entitled to do under law, whether we like the law or not. I understand that there are concerns but if they don’t work with us, they don’t get the grant anyway. But look toward the federal government grant people to decide if they meet the criteria.”
Lednovich expressed his concern over the Port’s proposed expansion into 2/3rds of an acre along the waterfront. “When that Port was created it was with the original agreement that the footprint would never change. This would be the beginning of the geographical expansion. My friends, beware. There’s no good faith here as far as I can see.”
The Resolution passed with 3 votes, while Ross and Lednovich voted against it.