Year in Review: Port study beset by delays

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By Chris Van Ormer

Port Citrus, the Chronicle’s No. 1 story of 2011, stumbled over obstacles during 2012 on its way to a feasibility study.

“Why would anyone be afraid of finding out whether this port is valid or not?” County Administrator Brad Thorpe, who also is the port director, asked more than once during the year as the project and study were met with legal challenges.

Citrus County Port Authority board members’ first move of 2012 was to don their Citrus County Board of County Commissioners’ (BOCC) personae to conduct a public hearing to adopt a port element within the county’s comprehensive plan. This they did on Jan. 10.

The port element adoption was a condition of proceeding with the application for a grant through the Florida Seaport Transportation and Economic Development Council to perform a feasibility study regarding the establishment of a port in Citrus County. FSTED allocated $50,000 for the study on condition of the county matching it. Matching funds came from the Citrus County Economic Development Council, CLM Workforce Connection and the BOCC.

Last week, Port Authority Board Member Joe Meek, who also is BOCC chairman, emphasized that the county paid only $8,000 toward the $100,000 feasibility study.

“It has been a very limited investment,” Meek said. “And it will be a very limited investment.”

Thorpe said port development would come from the private sector.

Nine firms responded early in the year to a request for qualifications (RFQ) to conduct the feasibility study. They were: BEA Architects Inc., Hanson Engineering, Martin Associates, GEC Inc., Vickerman Associates, Atkins Global, CDM Smith, TranSystems and Civil Engineering Group Inc. Their applications were opened in public on Jan. 20 at the Lecanto Government Center.

The firms had been asked to provide documented evidence of a strong maritime background; experience in maritime shipping and port operation; demonstrated familiarity with port development, with expertise in economic analysis and financial feasibility, port-related development and operational costs; and previous success with identifying and obtaining return on investment.

Following an exercise by a team of county employees to shortlist the applicants to conduct the feasibility study, the port authority board selected six firms on March 27 in a public meeting.

At that time, the board expected the study to be completed by the end of 2013. The study would address such questions as where the port would be sited, how it would be funded and how much revenue it could raise.

Presentations from each of the six firms were heard in public sessions on April 17 at the Citrus County Courthouse in Inverness. Martin Associates, with an average score from the board of 9.2, was chosen as the best-qualified applicant. Other scores were Vickerman & Associates Inc. — 9.0; TranSystems — 8.0; Gulf Engineers & Consultants — 7.6; Hanson Professional Services — 7.0; and BEA Architects Inc. — 6.2.

A 2011 lawsuit filed by Inverness resident Robert Schweickert Jr. alleging a Sunshine Law violation by the BOCC was dismissed on May 17. Board members had each met separately with a Tampa attorney regarding creating a port. Schweickert argued the meetings then became a de facto meeting and therefore a violation. Circuit Court Judge Richard “Ric” Howard dismissed the original complaint, citing absence of facts to make a case for a Sunshine Law violation.

At that time, Schweickert still had an outstanding constitutional challenge about the process of adding Port Citrus to the state’s list of ports.
By late August, Martin Associates had not started the feasibility study. Completion was not anticipated until early in 2013.

When asked if the recent primary election pulled away the focus on the study, Commissioner Dennis Damato, port authority chairman, told the Chronicle, “The bigger reason that the port was put on the back burner was getting the (county) budget squared away.”

Thorpe added that another delay was the availability of Martin Associates, which had not had time to schedule a scope-of-work meeting until Sept. 17.

Also late in August, Schweickert filed another legal complaint alleging the Sunshine Law was violated in the way Martin Associates was selected to conduct the feasibility study. Schweickert argued the team of county employees that ranked applicants to recommend to the port authority should have met in public for the process. Furthermore, when port authority board members marked ballots to choose a firm, the lawsuit alleges another Sunshine Law violation took place because the votes were not disclosed during the meeting.

Having been served a summons the Friday before the Sept. 17 meeting, representatives from Martin Associates did not attend to discuss the scope of work for the feasibility study.

According to an email to Port Counsel Richard Wesch, John C. Martin, head of Martin Associates, stated: “It is my thinking we should not begin the negotiating process until the issue is resolved.”

The meeting was adjourned after four minutes.

Rather that face the expense of defending a lawsuit and more delay in starting the feasibility study, the board chose to conduct a “cure” session to get the lawsuit withdrawn.

Wesch said he did not believe any Sunshine violation took place, but recommended the port authority set a meeting on Oct. 23 to conduct another public hearing of the review of the responses from firms offering to carry out the feasibility study as a cure session.

After the board repeated the process with new scores for all the firms, a new consultant, TranSystems, had the highest rating, and was invited to present a scope-of-work.

On Nov. 20, Rick Ferrin, vice president at TranSystems Corp., presented an outlined approach to the study as a three-phased project to determine economic viability, identify funding sources and identify opportunities and customers.

Since that time: “We’ve been refining the scope of work to present to the port authority on Jan. 8,” Thorpe said.

Staff members also have worked with the Florida Department of Transportation for grant approval.

“The scope-of-work is done. It’s going to be attached to a contract. Hopefully, it’s going to be approved on Jan. 8 by the port authority,” Thorpe said. “This feasibility study is about more than whether the port is feasible. It’s been used as a port. The Progress Energy canal is being used as a barge port. The barge canal port has been used by Cemex as a port. The purpose of this study from TranSystems is to identify potential markets, types of markets that can use it, potential partners, potential uses of facilities that are currently there, what limitations there may be, what would be required to expand its capacity.”

TranSystems is expected to release its completed feasibility study by the end of 2013. Port authority representatives then would use the study to market the port to developers from the private sector. They also intend to conduct town hall meetings to explain the findings to county residents and take comments.

“There are people who are already interested in utilizing the port,” Thorpe said. “The difference is whether it is a public port or a private port. Right now, it is a private port. The county does not have any ownership or leased property on the port. The biggest leased property that’s currently active is the Cemex mine. There are potential customers who could use that property and work with Cemex.

“What I would envision in the future is that there are many benefits to becoming a public port,” Thorpe continued. “Even with businesses established now, that would convert to a public port to get additional dollars to improve the infrastructure — the bulkhead, the roadway — you could see a port developer wanting to be a public port to get half the money funded for all the improvements. It would be a big advantage for them.”

* The port authority will meet at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 8, in Citrus County Courthouse, Room 100, at 110 N. Apopka Ave., Inverness. Among the topics to be discussed is the Port Citrus feasibility agreement with TranSystems.

Chronicle reporter Chris Van Ormer can be reached at cvanormer@chronicleonline.com or 352-564-2916.