A strategic plan unveiled late last month provides the framework for creation of an integrated system transporting goods in a four-county region in Florida, including Gulf.
The plan to create the Gulf to Gadsden Freight Logistics Zone recently was presented to the Board of County Commissioners for their support of the plan.
That support comes with no obligations for commissioners.
The plan is an extension of an earlier study funded by Duke Energy and supported by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.
Duke Energy provided grant funding for each of the four counties in the zone — Gulf, Franklin, Liberty and Gadsden — to undertake a Strategic Sites Inventory.
Those studies identified properties in each county that could serve as a platform for economic development.
Data from each of those studies was folded into the freight zone strategic plan.
Of particular note were significant key infrastructure, including the Port of Port St. Joe, the Apalachicola Regional Airport in Franklin County, the Interstate 10 interchange in Gadsden County and rail connections and interstate access in Liberty County.
With $60,000 in grant funding from DEO, economic development officials in the four counties, with guidance from the Apalachee Regional Planning Council, worked to craft the plan to create a Freight Logistic Zone.
And, in burrowing deeper, the plan also highlighted potential sites for an Intermodal Logistics Center, or hubs for regional activity.
One would be Gadsden County, where rail lines and I-10 converge, and the other is a site in Gulf County, along State 71 north of Chemical Drive, also known as the county's "lay-down yard" and which possesses access to rail and roadways, State 71 connecting to I-10 and, ultimately, the Gulf Coast Parkway once it's constructed.
The creation of a freight zone or intermodal hub are crucial in accessing state funding for projects that would boost the zone or hub and in turn economic development.
"This establishes a plan to go to the FDOT [Florida Department of Transportation] to pursue dollars for projects within the corridor," said Warren Yeager, executive director of the Gulf County Economic Development Coalition.
Some of those projects or potential projects are detailed in the plan, most crucially in Gulf County, efforts in developing the Port of Port St. Joe.
The plan notes the historical significance of the port as a "freight generator" and recent progress in opening the port, including a Port Authority tenant and the existing Eastern Shipbuilding lease on the paper mill site bulkhead owned by the St. Joe Co.
The study notes the strategic rail lines, roadways and, in the case of Gulf to Gadsden, the Intracoastal Waterway and the access to far flung markets that waterway provides.
"The Gulf to Gadsden FLZ has significant potential to become an important area for movement of goods in northwest Florida where local, regional and State officials have been working on plans to support and promote economic development competitiveness," the strategic plan's authors wrote.
"The plans include redevelopment of the Port of Port St. Joe, improvements to the rail facilities, improvements to the Apalachicola Regional Airport, development of ILCs in Gulf and Gadsden counties and strategic sites inventories in all four counties identifying lands with potential for industrial and commercial development."
The plan also puts a spotlight on the region's proximity to the expanded Panama Canal, closer than any other Florida seaport, as well as the existing rail and water avenues from the region to broader markets.
Along similar lines, the freight zone also would be adjacent to the existing Foreign Trade Zone in Panama City as well as a proposed Foreign Trade Zone in Tallahassee.