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Full speed ahead for Port Authority

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Adams tries to get group disbanded, but members vote to spend more money on development

By Abdon Sidibe

INVERNESS — The Citrus County Port Authority went ahead Thursday and picked a new interim port director and a matchmaker to arrange to bring potential private operators and capital to a proposed boat ramp and marina at the Cross Florida Barge Canal.

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Meanwhile, a surprise visitor to the authority’s meeting offered to lend a hand to the board amid strong opposition from County Commissioner Scott Adams, who pressed on to have the port authority disbanded. County commissioners serve as the port authority.

The Port Authority voted 3-1 on every agenda item, including tapping Ken Cheek, the county’s water resources director, as the new interim port director. Adams voted no on all items, and Commissioner Rebecca Bays was absent. Cheek gets a 5 percent bump in pay for the added responsibilities, according to Jeff Rogers, the county’s interim administrator.

Rogers said Cheek would serve in the position until a new administrator is in place who would then take over the port director’s role. Rogers has said he is not interested in being considered for the administrator position.

At Thursday’s monthly meeting, the port authority entered into a contract with TranSystems Corp. to, among other things, facilitate a private/public partnership to develop a major boat ramp and dry dock marina on the northwest side of U.S. 19 at the canal. The county will pay TranSystems up to $15,000 for its work. 

Commissioner Dennis Damato said the ramp/marina would be a regional boat ramp capable of drawing more people and businesses to the area. Damato said the ramp also would provide relief for boaters from the sometimes congested ramps in Crystal River and Homosassa.

But Adams said the ramp/marina idea is clear case of urban sprawl running amok.

“What we are doing is creating an urban sprawl plan by taking from the people of Crystal River and Homosassa and subsidizing it with taxpayers’ money in an area that is very desolate,” Adams said.

He added he wouldn’t be party to handing out subsidies to private companies to build the facility.

Adams proffered several motions to disband the authority and scrap Port Citrus completely, but failed to get any of the other members of the authority to support his motions.

In the end, Damato asked county staff to research the implications of scrapping the authority, “especially the funding side,” which both Rogers and Damato emphasized throughout the meeting. They believe by scrapping the authority, the county would lose out on various grant sources from the state — money they say could pay for economically beneficial projects in the area.

“Can we do it? How do we do it? What are the implications for the port and in relation to FDOT (Florida Department of Transportation), DEP, Swiftmud (Southwest Florida Water Management District) and any other state agency?” Damato said to staff.

Damato said getting all that information will help guide a fair and factual conversation about the merits or failings of the authority the next time the issue of disbanding it comes up.

Adams said he wants an accounting of all county staff time dedicated to Port Citrus business since it was established in 2011. He estimates the county has spent perhaps more than $600,000 on what he considers a failed plan.

“How much longer are we going to keep investing in something that is a pie in the sky we haven’t gotten a dime from yet?” Adams asked.

Meanwhile, newly elected incoming commissioner Scott Carnahan stopped by the meeting and offered himself as a liaison with other ports in the area. Carnahan said he has experience with port business and is ready to help in any way possible. Carnahan did not indicate if he supported Adams’ motion to disband the authority.

The authority also voted to change the land use designation for the proposed site to become zoned conservation and industrial. The site was lacking an industrial designation, which would ostensibly cover the marina portion of the project.

The issue of the land lease deal with Florida Parks Service for the 17-acre site was tabled to work out more details.

Contact Chronicle reporter A.B. Sidibe at 352-564-2925 or asidibe@chronicleonline.com.