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Gadsden poised to benefit from port project

By Robert Allen

A potential wave of industrial progress expanding from the Panhandle’s coast at Port St. Joe in Gulf County could help put Gadsden County’s economy back on track.

Plans include a direct connection with Gadsden County via Chattahoochee’s rail interchange between the Apalachicola Northern line and the CSX mainline. 

The Gadsden County Development Council or GCDC and Opportunity Florida gathered area business, industry and government leaders at the Greensboro train depot April 24 to discuss future developments in Port St. Joe that could have a real impact on the surrounding region, including Gadsden County. 

“Sure, we want everything we can get in the county,” said Lee Garner, Chattahoochee’s city manager. “We stand ready to assist and help in any way we can.”

During a later interview, Garner stepped carefully across the rusted tracks in the Chattahoochee switching yard. The old CSX depot stood shuttered behind him. 

While surveying the scene, Garner projected that the dredging project in Port St. Joe could double the number of trains coming through the tired-looking yard on any given day—to say nothing of the increased loads those trains may carry. 

Garner pointed across the tracks to an empty lot on the opposite side. There, he said, is a shovel-ready 40-acre site in a perfect position to become part of the potential development. The city 

manager said he sees potential for both factories and warehouses in the available space along the tracks throughout the county. 

Buddy Pitts, mayor of Greensboro, asked during the April 22 meeting about the project’s timetable. 

Leonard Costin, chairman of Port St. Joe’s Port Authority, projected the project could be completed sometime next year. 

“We’re very excited about the regionality of what the port will do,” said Costin.

The rail line in question, Gadsden’s direct connection to the pending development, is currently operated by the Apalachicola Northern or AN Railway. But the line is owned by Genesee and Wyoming or G&W.

“We do have a lot of experience moving a lot of different materials,” said Jim O’Donnell, a representative from G&W. “We’ve got experience moving a little bit of everything.”

O’Donnell emphasized the advantages of increased involvement with a small rail company. He explained G&W can more easily adjust local shipping schedules to more closely satisfy the specific business needs of regional customers along the line. 

“The regions make the decisions for how they do things,” said O’Donnell. “We want to be flexible. We don’t want to be monolithic.” 

The G&W representative also repeatedly stressed safety during the presentation. 

“We have to do it safely every day,” said O’Donnell. “There’s no excuse not to do that. It’s important for your community. We don’t want to come into your community and derail trains and knock down buildings.”

O’Donnell said he hopes Florida is truly “open for business,” as the state’s welcome signs say — because George and Alabama are right next door, offering policies that are welcoming to new and developing industry. 

According to Jim Brook, executive director of Opportunity Florida, a boutique cruise line has already made plans to start trial stops at the developing port — an arrangement that could develop into a regular industry. Brook also said the port includes a vast shovel-ready sight, just waiting for new industry. 

“It sounds like the port has re-written chapters of history over the years,” said Beth Kirkland, executive director of Tallahassee’s economic development council. “And there’s an opportunity for a new chapter.”

As the meeting concluded, a northbound AN train rumbled along the line, through Greensboro and toward Chattahoochee. Many of the attendees, mingling on the opposite side of the depot, hurried around the building to watch the swaying cars pass, a precursor — possibly — to Gadsden County’s new industrial future.