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Challenge lingers 40 years later

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By Chris Van Ormer

Citrus County was a different place when the first port feasibility study was issued in 1969.

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For one thing, the population was only 17,000.

But if the first study brought forth a plan that had been followed, what would Citrus County look like today? The question about products to ship out might have been solved.

Inbound shipping in 1969 did not represent as much of a challenge as outbound shipments, according to the historic study: “Supplement Cargo Analysis — Cost Estimate” for Citrus County Port Authority.

“At present, there are no industries in Citrus County producing products in sufficient quantity to warrant shipment by barge,” the report stated. “Therefore, commodities must originate outside of Citrus County.”

Palatka, site of Port Putnam, was trucking rolls of paper to a loading site on the west end of the Cross Florida Barge Canal for outbound shipment. The trucking would stop when the barge canal finished, connecting the two ports.

Otherwise, “there appears to be little outbound commerce that can be expected to pass through Port Citrus until such time as industries are established. There is a need for a back haul load that would result in competitive tariffs.”

These industries were suggested in 1969 to fill that load:

* Marina and motel at the canal.
* Cement manufacturing.
* Fertilizers.
* Furniture.
* Wood chip plant.
* Brewery.
* Grain and flour
products.

Also, an operational Port Citrus could become the site of distributorships for automobile and machinery parts, farm machinery, road building machinery, lumber, steel reinforcing and steel restructural shapes that could be delivered by barge.

County commissioners, who also sit as members of the Citrus County Port Authority, were asked what the county could look like today if the 1969 plan had been followed to some extent in spite of the barge canal project being dropped.

“The list (of industries), of course, is dated,” Dennis Damato said.

Port Citrus today could be looking at shipping out wood pellets from Levy County and scrap metal, Damato said.

For inbound, Port Citrus could receive bulk petroleum from Port Tampa.

“Two tankers a day come up by road and go back empty,” Damato said.
Had Port Citrus already been up and running, “It would have changed the county a lot,” Damato said. “There would have been greater impetus for the Suncoast Parkway because we would have had a hub on the north side, and truck traffic would bypass Crystal River.”

It would be difficult to say how having a port would change the county as we know it today, Rebecca Bays said.
“We have the opportunity today to take the tax dollars spent then, go forward and still be good stewards of our environment,” Bays said.

The most noticeable aspect would be a more diverse economy.

John “JJ” Kenney also said the product list had changed during the past 40 years, although he liked the brewery idea.

“There are a number of products that could be manufactured,” Kenney said. “The possibilities are unlimited.”
If the port already existed, Kenney said, more jobs would be brought to the county in trucking, security, food service and transportation scheduling, just to name a few.

“Go to the established ports right now and look at the jobs they bring,” Kenney said.
With more people being drawn to the county for the jobs, Kenney said, “They will need houses and that could help bring about the recovery in the construction industry.”

The greatest impact on the county would be economic if a port already was in place, Winn Webb said.

 “We would have more diversity of resources and not be so far in the hole in this economy,” Webb said.
The county likely would have better roads, such as a wider U.S. 19, with a port in place.
“The decisions we make today will have a great impact on future generations,” Webb said.

“Then, as now, they were trying to diversify the marketplace and grow jobs,” Joe Meek said. “We are looking at two things: opportunity and possibility.”

The economy is the driver for the current effort to start a port, Meek said. The port is one element of several projects that would interact to help the economy, with a viable port leading to a discussion about the extension of the parkway.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Meek said. “Successful industries are drawn to an environment that encourages that investment to be made.”

Chronicle reporter Chris Van Ormer can be reached at cvanormer@chronicleonline.com.