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Barges work for Putnam County

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By Chris Van Ormer

The St. Johns River, the longest river in Florida at 310 miles, never got connected to the Gulf of Mexico.

Had the Cross Florida Barge Canal project been completed rather than abandoned in 1971, St. Johns River traffic possibly would be floating out through Inglis today.

Still, Port Putnam in Palatka, created at the same time as Port Citrus in 1967, developed as a barge port in 1970 and never looked back. The river flows north to Jacksonville.

“Economic and feasibility studies were conducted by engineers and a committee of citizens and they recommended in 1966 that the Putnam County Board of Commissioners proceed with action to establish and construct the barge port,” said Ray Bunton, Putnam County Industrial Coordinator, quoted in the Nov. 6, 1970, edition of the Daytona Beach Sunday News-Journal.

In its early days, Palatka’s economy was based on the river’s steamboat traffic. Today, the river moves goods on barges because the city has a large manufacturing sector, about three times the state average.

Palatka’s largest employer, Georgia Pacific, produces pulp, paper and plywood. It employs more than 1,200 full-time staff with an annual payroll of more than $88 million. The company spends about $13 million a year in Putnam County and pays taxes and charitable donations of $3 million to $4 million.

However, Putnam County had a December 2011 unemployment rate of 11.6 percent, compared to Citrus County’s 10.9 percent. But counties with seaports had lower unemployment rates than Citrus.

Current users of the barge port include: Apex Metal Fabrication, AT&T, Beck Auto Group, Caraustar Industrial & Consumer, DSI Forms Inc., First Coast Technical College, Florida Rock Industries, Hanson plc., Keith Marine, Lion Pool Products, Mitchell Grayson Inc., Newcastle Shipyard LLC, Price Brothers, Prichett Trucking, PDM Bridge, Southwestern Electric and Weststaff.

The Putnam County Port Authority is a public corporation that owns, maintains and manages the port and its industrial and commercial areas. Its governing body is the Putnam County Board of County Commissioners which sets policies cand oversees major expenditures. Day-to-day operations are carried out by the county’s public works department.