By Mike Lednovich
The Port of Fernandina’s long-time accountant urged Ocean Highway and Port Authority commissioners not to do it.
Two port commissioners vehemently opposed doing it.
So what happened?
OHPA voted 3-2 to do it.
The port voted to hire real estate broker Amelia Coastal Realty to sell of one parcel it owns at 332 North Third Street adjacent to the port in a residential neighborhood.
Before the vote, OHPA Chair Miriam Hill asked Port Accountant Pierre Laporte his advice on selling port property.
Laporte said the operating model for the port was that money paid (a fixed fee) to OHPA by the port operator was intended to pay for all expenses.
He told them, “Taking an asset and selling it to fund recurring costs means that when that asset is sold, you’ve lost it, and you’ll run out of money eventually. You have to live within your budget, which is that (port operator) fixed fee. These assets, if you want to do something with it, it has to be a one time, with the investment, whether it be land, whether it be building a new facility — but to spend it on operating costs, it’s a waste, because it’s not going to last, it’s going to run out, and then what are you going to do?”
Hill and Commissioner Justin Taylor also argued that selling port property was a bad idea.
“My problem now is, we can’t say we have a plan for the money. We can invest it, we can do this or that, but what will we do with it? I think now is the wrong time to do it,” Taylor said. “Maybe down the line we can look at opportunities of how to monetize that land, sell the land and use it for investment purposes, but this whole process, I have a bad taste in my mouth with how it started and where we are now.”
But that didn’t dissuade Commissioners Danny Fullwood, Michael Cole or Ray Nelson from voting to sell the land.
Nelson previously said proceeds from the property could be used to repair port facilities such as the roofs on two warehouses. He has since backtracked on that stance, but supported moving forward.
“Those pieces of property are sitting there now absolutely being used for nothing. I don’t think that’s good policy. What we do with the money (from the property) would be to advance OHPA as an organization. You would have money, whether you want to invest it in Crawford Diamond, whatever you want to do. I’m a proponent of taking care of the port because that’s what this board is charged with. Using the money for investments purposes that’s fine, for the right investment. But to sit here and say we don’t want to do it for future generations or we want to give the boards down the road something, that’s not good stewardship.”
Fullwood said property proceeds could be invested in numerous ways and the port could leverage interest from those investmants to help pay expenses.
Previous market value estimates by brokers for the three port-owned parcels were from $1.5 million to $2.75 million.
What OHPA hasn’t decided is the plan for the cash-strapped Port Authority to do with proceeds from the property. OHPA has incurred crushing debt over legal bills that still continue over two lawsuits — one by the city regarding payments for services the city provides and the other by the county Property Appraiser on whether the port operator should pay property taxes. Both suits are ongoing. The port is struggling so badly that it recently terminated the contract of its executive port director to save the cost of his salary. And, the port operator told commissioners business is down.
OHPA was seeking a new real estate broker because the original broker quit in frustration as commissioners squabbled about selling the land and what to do with the money.
“We did a piss poor job of moving forward with the broker that was selected, who ended up backing out. We did a disservice to him because we weren’t organized and we weren’t clear on exactly what we were doing. I hate it for the broker who lost and the ones now. I don’t think it’s a reflection on them, it’s a reflection on us,” Taylor said.
The next step is for Port Attorney Patrick Krechowski to negotiate terms with Amelia Coastal Realty and create a listing agreement to sell the property.