The St. Joe Company announced Tuesday it will lease part of the old paper mill property in Port St. Joe to the Eastern Shipbuilding Group of Bay County.
The last decade's been tough for Gulf County, particularly Port St. Joe after the Arizona Chemical Plant and paper mill both shut down. But Friday’s news that the Eastern Shipbuilding Group will open a new facility on the old port property, has residents and county leaders seeing the beginning of a new era.
The old paper mill property and port have sat vacant since the mill closed in August 1998.
"When we rode over the overpass and knew there used to be 700 to 800 jobs there, it's a struggle for our economy," said Chairman of the Gulf County Commission, Warren Yeager.
The St. Joe Company, which owns the land, scrapped plans to develop the property with homes and retail space after the real estate bust several years. But Tuesday, St. Joe officials announced they're leasing part of the land to Eastern Shipbuilding.
"This is a huge deal. We've finally got some good news. Over the past ten or twelve years, we've had nothing but bad news here in Gulf County for our employment. And finally a break through here," said Yeager.
Eastern will build an "outfitting yard" on the port property to finish off ship's built at it's Allanton and Millville shipyards in Bay County.
"We do all the steel work, we mount the engines, we paint the boat and then we launch it. And there's about for to five months of outfitting work, electrical work, final paint and final touches and finally sea trials," said Owner of Eastern Shipbuilding, Brian D’Isernia.
Eastern can definitely use the extra space. The company has several new contracts requiring an additional five-hundred employees. The company is guaranteeing a number of those jobs will be based in Port St. Joe.
"We've already hired two-hundred here in Bay County so we've got three-hundred left to hire under our present contracts and we hope to sell and build more boats beyond that," said D’Isernia.
The Eastern deal is welcome news to Port St. Joe native Julia Scheffer. The recent high school grad said she and most of her classmates have to consider leaving town to find work. She says the new industry may replace desperation with hope.
"Everybody worked for those two industries and now that they're gone, the schools are failing, there's nobody around, the town at night looks dead. And it's amazing to know that something will be here so people can live here," said Scheffer.
Eastern builds all types of vessels, but specializes in offshore oil platform supply boats. D'Isernia says the new yard should be up and running within eight to ten months.
Earlier version of the story: The St. Joe Company will lease 20 acres of its former paper mill site in Port St. Joe (Gulf County), Florida, to Eastern Shipbuilding Group of Panama City. Eastern plans to expand its existing shipbuilding, vessel construction and repair and industrial steel fabrication operations to Port St. Joe. It will continue its operations in Panama City and Allanton.
Eastern’s Port St. Joe facility is immediately adjacent to one of only 14 state-authorized deep water ports in Florida. The Port St. Joe facility will enable the to meet its current and emerging contracts for vessel manufacturing requirements and has the potential to create many new jobs in Port St. Joe.
In order to perform these contracts, Eastern is already in the process of hiring 500 new employees who will join current workforce.
“The hard and diligent work of our current workforce has earned Eastern Shipbuilding Group the manufacturing contracts that necessitate our expansion to Port St. Joe,” said Brian D’Isernia, President of Eastern Shipbuilding Group. “Eastern Shipbuilding Group remains committed to manufacturing the highest quality vessels our customers demand in a global market. I appreciate the assistance of Gulf County Commissioner Warren Yeager and Port Authority Chairman Joanna White whose tireless efforts led to our expansion to Gulf County.”
Governor Rick Scott added, “Congratulations to Eastern Shipbuilding Group and The St. Joe Company on their combined efforts and confidence in taking this bold step which solidifies new opportunities for our State’s economy, and specifically, our citizens across the Panhandle. Efforts like this are part of the success we are seeing in Florida to create a business climate that creates jobs, and I commend Eastern Shipbuilding’s commitment to our great State.”