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, Easterns president Joey DIsernia likened the moment to when Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh penned Brother, commemorate
me thus beautifully as he gazed out over the Grand Canal in
His words resonate today, said DIsernia. 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, DIsernia 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
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 DIsernia 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
Floridas 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 Citys 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. Andrews 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.
Florida House Ive continued to fight for more training and wont 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.”