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Port Citrus seeks its niche

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Proposed feasibility study could draw developers — or keep them away

By Mike Wright

Editor’s note: This is the final part of a four-Sunday series in February examining Port Citrus. Today, the Chronicle looks at the proposed port site and where the project goes from here.
Mike Wright
Staff Writer
INVERNESS — Brad Thorpe knows Port Citrus is not a done deal.
It’s not a slam dunk. Not a sure thing. It could bring jobs but, then again, a lot of things have to happen for that to occur.

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“There’s peril in here,” Thorpe said. “I’m not naive about this.”
Thorpe is the Citrus County administrator who, in the last 12 months, also assumed a new title: port director.

The five-member Citrus County Commission also serves as a port authority on occasion, steering the project known as Port Citrus into what it hopes is friendly waters.

It’s been a year since Tampa attorney Fred Busack first brought the idea of a port on the Cross Florida Barge Canal to the attention of Citrus County officials. And, following such high-fangled ideas as trans sea lifters and mega-ton container ships, officials have narrowed their vision to something closer to home.

As one potential consultant called it: a “viable niche barge port.”
“We have to be realistic with our assets,” Thorpe said.
 

At least Port Citrus has a starting point: The Cross Florida Barge Canal, 6.5 miles straight from the Gulf of Mexico to the U.S. 19 bridge.
The canal is 250 feet wide; the 150-foot channel has an average depth of 13 feet. About 5.5 miles in from the gulf lay a 1,600-foot key cut that includes a barge landing for Citrus Mining and Timber and its lease-holder, Cemex. An aerial view of the property shows active mining just west of the key cut on the 545-acre property owned by Dixie Hollins.

While emails show Hollins has been instrumental from the start in helping to line up interest in Port Citrus, county officials only recently have acknowledged the Hollins property is where they would like Port Citrus to end up.

“Because he’s got the key cut, we’ve got to deal with Dixie,” Thorpe said.

Records also show the county started the process of developing a lease with Hollins after hiring a lobbyist to have the law changed that added Citrus has the 15th port in Florida.

County Attorney Richard Wesch said the lobbyist, Pete Dunbar, told Citrus officials  they needed a lease with the property owner before Citrus could be added as a port. He said Dunbar later told the county that wasn’t necessary.

Under the proposed lease, the Citrus County Port Authority would pay Hollins $1 a year, plus pay all taxes, water and sewer utilities and electric rates.

Wesch and Thorpe said the proposed land lease never went further than that and there have been no negotiations.

Wesch said because the county is counting on a private port developer to pay for improvements to the port site, any lease signing would include three parties simultaneously — the port authority, Hollins and port developer.

Thorpe also said the county hasn’t had any discussions with proposed port developers.

“We’re not that far down the road yet,” he said.

Plenty still to take place

Thorpe’s file on Port Citrus already contains five binders, though two of them deal mainly with the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council, or FSTED, and its expert advisory board, the Florida Ports Council.

Citrus pays $11,260 annual dues to belong to the Florida Ports Council. FSTED provides state funding for projects; the county has a $50,000 grant for a feasibility study that is being matched locally with tax dollars and private donations.

Officials — Thorpe, Wesch, assistant county administrator Ken Frink and someone with the Florida Department of Transportation — reviewed nine companies that submitted proposals for the feasibility study.

Thorpe said he will recommend four for review by the county commission, sitting as the port authority. The board will interview company representatives and then rank the businesses. Thorpe and Wesch will negotiate a contract, and Thorpe hopes the study begins in early summer.

By state law, the study must be completed by 2014 and the project determined feasible. If not, Citrus is dropped from the FSTED and along with it would lose chances for state funding.

Thorpe said the study will be more of a marketing plan for Port Citrus.
“It will tell us what niche we’ll probably be most successful at,” he said.

Citrus County officials already have an indicator of what the state looks for in a port plan.

Just Friday, the county received a letter from the Department of Economic Opportunity, which replaced the Department of Community Affairs as the state review of local comprehensive plan amendments.
The state Land Planning Agency reviewed the county’s new port element in the compressive plan and found nothing objectionable.
However, the agency noted the county already amended its comprehensive plan in 2006 for Hollinswood Harbor, on the same 545-acre site it now targets for Port Citrus.

The agency said the county should clarify how those two uses will relate.

It also said the county’s port master plan must address transportation to support the port; short-term port expansion plans; water and sewer expansions; and in-water facilities and
maintenance.

The agency said FSTED will want that information before it approves funding for capital projects.

Thorpe said the study’s importance is to draw potential investors. He said the county does not plan to spend money to develop the port other than applying for grants from FSTED or the Department of Environmental Protection for a potential water and sewer line extension.

“I don’t see them doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars on this project,” Thorpe said, referring to commissioners.

So the project could fall apart if the study does not show a lucrative market for potential investors or developers, he said.

The risk, he said, is well worth the potential payout: a viable port providing jobs and a boost to the economy.

And it’s not like the Cross Florida Barge Canal is going anywhere.
“Right now,” Thorpe said, “it’s just a ditch.”

Chronicle reporter Mike Wright can be reached at 352-563-3228 or mwright@ chronicleonline.com.

SUNDAY, FEB. 5
 Original port plans along the Cross Florida Barge Canal
 Port Putnam was
created in 1967 and still operates today
 The 1969 Port Citrus feasibility study
SUNDAY, FEB. 12
 Port Citrus so far: “Trans-sea lifters” to Port Authority
 Public perception of the port project
 Panama Canal
expansion impact
SUNDAY, FEB. 19
 Panhandle town makes go of port
 Impact of port in one community
 Map of Florida
seaports.
TODAY
 Logistics of Port
Citrus site: road, rail, water
 Fit with “Hollinswood Harbor”?
 Reaction from
officials, residents
 What’s next for Port
Citrus?