Standing beside a pair of freshly finished, bright orange ferries,
soon to shuttle millions of New Yorkers each year between the boroughs of Manhattan
and Staten Island, the ninth smallest county in Florida celebrated its good
fortune last week.
Built in Panama City, and lately outfitted in Port St. Joe, the two 320-foot long, 70-foot wide, Ollis-class Staten Island Ferries, named for Army Staff SGT. Michael Ollis, a Staten Islander killed in action in Afghanistan in 2013, formed a majestic backdrop to the grand opening of the Eastern Shipbuilding Group, Inc.’s Port St. Joe facility on Thursday morning, July 8.
On the grounds of a steadily expanding 40-acre site that encompasses 1,000 feet of deepwater bulkhead with unrestricted access to the Gulf of Mexico test and trials grounds, Eastern’s president Joey D’Isernia likened the moment to when Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh penned “Brother, commemorate me thus beautifully” as he gazed out over the Grand Canal in Dublin.
“His words resonate today,” said D’Isernia. “We are proud to commission our third facility with the strong support from the local community and our dedicated workforce. This is an exciting chapter in our long history of quality shipbuilding as we add new capacity and capabilities to offer our customers and build a longstanding presence in Gulf County.
“Some view our region as resort towns – good for a week at the beach or maybe a conference to break the monotony in the middle of a northern winter,” D’Isernia continued. “And while that outside economic infusion is vital – this is our home.
“Today, Gulf County employees represent 5 percent of our direct-hire employee population and we look forward to hiring more as we grow together,” he said. “Our pledge is to be a good steward of this land, a reliable partner in the community, and an employer that builds careers for future generations.
The new facility is dedicated to final outfitting and testing of commercial new construction vessels as well as topside repairs.
A small crowd gathered from across the Panhandle to celebrate the moment, highlighted by remarks from U.S. Rep. Neal Dunn, and state and county elected officials, who flanked D’Isernia as he snipped a blue ribbon to close the ceremony. Travis Wade, Apalachicola's city manager, was among those on hand.
“This is an exciting day for Gulf County and the rest of Florida’s 2nd Congressional District,” said Dunn. “This town was ravaged by Hurricane Michael just three short years ago affecting the livelihoods of everyone in the area. This project will bring hundreds of jobs to the area and will give more Gulf County residents the chance to achieve the American Dream."
Eastern recently completed a $6 million infrastructure
improvement project at the facility to allow for vessel outfitting to commence,
and has embarked on a $50 million 15,000-ton dry-dock project to provide full
vessel sustainment services. This dry-dock has been designed to service both
government and commercial ships and can haul large deep draft vessels.
With three facilities along the Gulf Coast on the Panhandle, Eastern is one of the only shipbuilders in the United States that can perform commercial shipbuilding competitively while simultaneously managing a large government program. Panama City’s 40-acre Nelson Street Facility and operational headquarters is dedicated to the Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Cutter project to ensure continuous and uninterrupted construction of those critical national security assets. The company is well underway on a $45 million facility optimization project at Nelson Street, fully permitted and funded.
The 300-acre Allanton facility, where Eastern operates the commercial side of the business, has over 6,000 feet of water frontage leading into St. Andrew’s Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The company is the largest private employer in Bay County and has approximately 1,300 employees and contract workers across its three main shipbuilding facilities.
The ceremony was emceed by Jim McKnight, director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition, who in his opening remarks likened Eastern' s success in securing a contract to build the first four of what could well be two dozen Coast Guard offshore patrol cutters to that of a David succeeding against the bigger and more well-known Goliaths of the shipbuilding industry.
Preceding Dunn's remarks, State Re. Jason Shoaf spoke, providing some insight into the work that both Gulf and Franklin counties have done to prepare a workforce who could secure good paying jobs at the Port St. Joe facility.
"Job growth and vocational training are a top priority of mine and this facility enhances the opportunities for both," he said. "When I was on the Triumph Gulf Coast Board, we awarded Gulf and Franklin County Schools the funds needed to establish new career training programs at both schools.
"In the Florida House I’ve continued to fight for more training and won’t stop until we have world class career training. The shipbuilding jobs created by this facility will provide a workplace for the newly trained students and will provide career opportunities for our children right here locally," Shoaf said.
"For far too long, many of them have had to move away to find good careers," he said. "The addition of manufacturing jobs at this facility will widen the base of our local economy and reduce an increasing dependence on tourism."