Commentary: Port Commission Simply Isn’t Functioning as it Should

By Mike Phillips

It’s time to say this, and say it bluntly: The Ocean Highway and Port Authority (OHPA) has become a circus, a joke and a detriment to the citizens of Nassau County.

Though what it oversees is called the Port of Fernandina, its five-member commission is elected county-wide and does not answer to the governments of Fernandina Beach or Nassau County.

Right now, it is drifting into trouble with the Federal Department of Transportation, which gave it a $1.2 million grant to buy a tugboat that could put it in the ocean barge transport business and thereby make more money and take some truck pressure off the I-95 corridor.

OHPA took the money and bought a shiny new $800,000 tugboat, the Fort Clinch. Problem is, the Fort Clinch is too small to push ocean barges. All it can do is guide big ships into and out of the port. This has been well-known to port officials and local observers. But now the feds are in the know and are talking tough. They might want their money back if the port doesn’t get into the intercoastal barging business.

The solution: Buy a bigger tug (and a barge). That’s a million-dollar-plus problem. And OHPA is broke – so broke it had to fire its executive director to balance the budget.

That’s just the problem of the moment — though it’s a big one. But the port authority’s problems run deeper.

Just in the last few months, the commissioners:

  • Got the bright idea of getting into the cruise terminal business to improve their finances. The booing came from every direction: neighbors, city officials who knew the congestion would be their problem but the sales tax revenue from passengers would flow to the county, and citizens from all over the county who like to shop and dine in Fernandina and didn’t want to contend with boat-loads of cruise passengers.
  • Got the bright idea of handling huge bags of cement powder. The first shipment sent clouds of toxic powder far and wide. Watching port workers try to clean up the mess with push brooms (while not wearing the masks they had been told to wear) became a daily neighborhood sight.
  • Knew they couldn’t afford the director they had hired, made him a severance offer and said goodbye.
  • Heard from the director’s attorney that they should have read the director’s contract, which called for written notice well in advance. That cost them another $40,000.
  • Still have not resolved an ongoing dispute with Fernandina Beach over payment in lieu of taxes for city services like street lights and police patrols. They owe the city at least $200,000.
  • Still have not settled with county officials who think they owe more in property taxes. Losing that one could be a killer.
  • Still have not paid their lawyers fully for handling these ongoing disputes.
  • Decided some lots they own outside the port boundaries should be sold to settle their financial woes. Hired a highly regarded realtor to manage more than $2 million in land sales, then bickered at their last meeting over whether they should sell all the three parcels, just two of them, just one of them or not at all. The realtor quit in disgust – and who could blame him?

Individually, these are pretty smart, pretty well-meaning people. But they aren’t a team. They aren’t working together, which means collectively, they are a mess.

So do you think everything that could go wrong has gone wrong? Consider this:

The Port of Brunswick, just 60 miles north of Nassau County, has 1,700 acres and is adding 85 to do a major port expansion on its south side that is aimed at doing everything the 25-acre Port of Fernandina does – and more.

You can bet they have us in their sights.

Do our commissioners have a plan for dealing with this? What do you think?

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Frank Quigley
Active Member
Frank Quigley(@frank-quigley)
1 month ago

The port is doomed. Its time, as a going-concern, is well over. That it cannot be brought to heel by city and county governments is a red herring, and largely irrelevant. (Neither of these have shown much effectiveness, on balance, anyway.) 

Not long ago the port’s sales materials touted the accessibility to I-95 and I-10 via A1A/Hwy 200. The hyper-growth of recent years has choked 200 to the point that it is constrictive to truck shipping. Ask around the mills, who also rely on 200, and you will find concern about long-term future business viability because of this. Time is money and it is increasingly taking truck shipments too much time to get from “A” to “B”.   

This is but one of the port’s existential problems. This whole bit about barges was always dubious. Supposedly the scheme – supported by the Federal Government with real dollars – was that a shipper could send cargo to Fernandina Beach. Then, break bulk and ship to other ports. Huh? If you want cargo in Brunswick or Jacksonville or Savannah wouldn’t you ship it directly there? And yes, having super-ports North, South and West of us (all with superior geographic advantage), is a huge problem competitively. Put a fork in it. West Rock and Rayonier may continue to need a water passage for materials, and I’d propose that if so – that’s on them.

It’s time to wind things down. 

Noble Member
1 month ago
Reply to  Frank Quigley

You are SPOT ON here. I have written the county commissioners about why they aren’t more focused on bringing more INDUSTRY to our area instead of just HOUSING. The bridge onto the island creates a bottleneck that makes the port NOT a viable option for commercial purposes due to the rampant growth and « need » to cut down every tree and build houses on it. What used to be a 15 minute trip from Chester Rd to Sadler Rd takes 30 minutes or more depending on the traffic. Some days, I wonder if Shrimp Fest has started early and no one told us. It’s beyond sad what has happened to our area. All that have done is create a haven for the mega wealthy and done NOTHING for those of us that have resided here our whole lives—no affordable housing ANYWHERE in the county, no places for CAREER type jobs…. 🙁

Active Member
1 month ago

well thank you Captain Obvious, any other bandwagons you want to jump on a little late? 🙂

Trusted Member
1 month ago

I imagine the port will collapse under it’s own financial weight regardless of what city, county and state want. I’m sure the feds are astounded at the incompetence presented in this well written opinion. We’re new here, but I’m shocked to learn of this mess!

Sherry Harrell
Active Member
Sherry Harrell(@sherry-harrell)
1 month ago

OHPA has been a mismanaged asset of Nassau County for many years. If the entity can be saved from total collapse, management should be realigned, in order to provide oversight. Maybe this should go under Taco Pope’s duties as County Manager, but currently, this is an embarrassment to all of us.

Robert Weintraub
Noble Member
Robert Weintraub(@rukbat23gmail-com)
1 month ago

Once upon a time the Fernandina port was operated by several private enterprises, The State Legislature approved acquiring these properties and created the OHPA as a mechanism for improving industrial development in Nassau County (which it never did). From the beginning the OHPA commissioners made poor financial decisions and wound up with a big debt. The much-maligned Raguccii came in and bailed them out by taking over their debt. But poor decisions continued. They doubled their salaries and made many bad decisions, only some of which are listed by Mike Phillips. Their charter required them to work with Fernandina Beach, but instead, claiming they were totally independent, they got into costly disputes with the City. Perhaps the best solution would be to dissolve the OHPA and put the port back into the hands of private enterprise.

Joe Blanchard
Active Member
Joe Blanchard(@jlblan2)
1 month ago

No one can disagree that the Port has been mismanaged for many years and the residents of the Historic District have gone out of their way to make sure that the Port can’t make any money by complaining at any option presented by the port. The land that the Port has considered selling, should be leased out so that it will have continuous income from it. The port has been here for a long time and people need to understand that they can only make money by either shipping material in and out or by having a cruise ship visit the port once a week for one day. The channel into the port is one of the deepest natural channels on the east coast and its close access to the ocean. This is unlike many of the other ports (Jacksonville, Brunswick, and Savannah). The natural depth is a reason the submarine base is located off the St Marys river. A lot of the road traffic can be relieved by using the rail system but then residents will be up in arms with the increased rail use. The port just can’t win. I think a large number of residents (probably a lot of them new to the island) want the port removed, the mills removed and turn our island into something like Hilton Head.