It’s not every day that you see Staten Island ferries in Southern waters, but their presence has been a welcome sight for one northwest Florida community.

Two new Ollis-class, New York City-bound ferries are nearing completion at Eastern Shipbuilding Group Inc.’s (ESG) newest facility in Port St. Joe, Florida. The vessel manufacturer hosted a grand opening on Thursday.

“We are proud to commission our third facility with the strong support from the local community

and our dedicated workforce,” said Joey D’Isernia, president of ESG. “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.”

ESG will use Port St. Joe for final outfitting and testing of commercial new construction vessels and topside repairs. The 40-acre St. Joe facility, where the first two of three Staten Island ferries are receiving their final touches before delivery to New York, has been in operation since February.

“The Staten Island project was a public procurement. We saw it as a project that we wanted to win, and we thought that we’d be very well suited to build and deliver for the people in New York,” D’Isernia said of ESG’s successful bid. “We have a long history of building all sorts of commercial and government vessels and have a good track record of building ferries.”

D’Isernia remarked that the Port St. Joe site was optimal because it boasts 1,000 feet of deepwater bulkhead with unrestricted access to the Gulf of Mexico for testing and trials.

“There are no air draft restrictions, meaning there’s no bridge that we have to go under when we’re performing sea trials at St. Joe. That’s a necessary criteria for an outfitting yard,” he added. “I think it was a win-win for us as a company and also for Gulf County in that we were able to find a location that really suited what we were looking for.”

Employing more than 1,300 employees across three facilities, ESG is currently the largest private employer in Bay County, the site of its two other shipyards along Florida’s Panhandle. Both yards specialize in commercial steel and aluminum vessel construction as well as industrial steel fabrication; the Panama City facilities are producing four U.S. Coast Guard Offshore Patrol Cutters.

With the addition of Port St. Joe, commercial vessels are to be constructed mostly at the Panama City yards and towed the short distance to ESG’s newest facility for final outfitting.

ESG invested heavily at the Port St. Joe facility this past year, most recently footing the bill for a $6 million infrastructure improvement project to allow for vessel outfitting. 

D’Isernia added that plans are in the works for a $50 million, 15,000-ton dry-dock project to provide full vessel sustainment services.

“We look forward not only to the final outfitting and delivery of our new construction vessels at Port St. Joe, but also to establishing it as a good repair and sustainment yard for our commercial and government customers,” D’Isernia said. “We’re also building Coast Guard Cutters. … When they need to come in for a shave and a haircut, ESG can put them on our dry dock at Port St. Joe and sustain them there.”

The sight of the iconic, bright orange New York City ferries has local residents optimistic as well.

“Hurricane [Michael] slowed everything down [last year], impacting us in many ways, but,we’re tickled to death to have people drive across our bridge thinking the Staten Island ferries have docked in the wrong place,” said Jim McKnight, director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition.

Gulf County goes at a slower pace than neighboring Bay County, home of popular vacation spot Panama City Beach. However, besides the cattle and timber industries and the prison at its northern end, Gulf County’s beaches have always been its cash crop, with tourism making up most of its economy.

McKnight said he’s happy to see manufacturing jobs return to the area, more specifically to the tract of land where the shipyard lies. A papermill sat on the site prior, providing the community with 500 jobs until it closed nearly 20 years ago. 

Port St. Joe was at one time the largest city in the Sunshine State; around 12,000 residents called the city home in 1838 — larger than its current population. Despite its namesake, though, the city wasn’t a typical port. Because no major river flowed into the bay, Port St. Joe wasn’t a major ocean port but instead thrived as a rail hub, becoming Florida’s first railroad destination.

In fact, McKnight said that Florida’s constitution was drafted in the city, but Port St. Joe was narrowly outvoted by Tallahassee to become the state capital. After a devastating yellow fever outbreak in 1841 and series of hurricanes, Port St. Joe’s manufacturing might took a major hit, and it has been known as a small vacation getaway ever since. However, ESG’s new shipyard looks to write a new chapter in the city’s history.

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