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Jacksonville dredging project prompts more debate as job creation predictions jump

New study finds JaxPort's jobs footprint is growing, but skeptics persist

Posted: August 7, 2014 - 6:42pm  |  Updated: August 7, 2014 - 7:52pm
Ships load and unload at the JAXPORT Blount Island facilities.  Bruce.Lipsky@jacksonville.com
Bruce.Lipsky@jacksonville.com
Ships load and unload at the JAXPORT Blount Island facilities.

The consultant whose 2009 study has provided rhetorical ammunition for Jacksonville political leaders pursuing a project to deepen the St. Johns River — and has been a source of frustration for skeptics of the effort — vigorously defended his track record Thursday and doubled down on his findings.

In an updated report, Pennsylvania-based Martin Associates concludes the city could lose out on even more jobs than the firm originally predicted years ago if the 42-foot channel is not dredged.

John Martin, the firm’s founder, also told members of Mayor Alvin Brown’s port task force Thursday that — when including a broad, controversial category of jobs not directly tied to the port operations — JaxPort positively impacts more than 132,000 jobs across Florida, more than double the figure he found in 2009. He said that’s in addition to supporting nearly $27 billion in annual economic output for the region and state.

Both jobs figures have been debated, with critics saying the numbers can, and have, been used to mislead the public about JaxPort’s jobs footprint and the costs of pursuing the $700 million project to deepend the channel to 47 feet.

Martin defended his methodologies and walked task force members through a confident, data-filled presentation. His new numbers are unlikely to quell skeptics.

“It still gives people the wrong impressions,” said University of North Florida sociology professor David Jaffee, whose research includes examining the impacts of the port economy, and who has been a vocal critic of dredging. “People have to understand who is paying for this economic impact study and how it will be used.”

The Environmental Legal Institute of Florida filed suit earlier this summer against JaxPort and Martin Associates, alleging the two have refused to release key information used to generate the figures. Its lawsuit also calls into question Martin’s track record as an independent analyst, an accusation Martin pushed back hard against.

The lawsuit drew an immediate, blistering and unusual critique from JAX Chamber CEO Daniel Davis, whose organization, along with much of Jacksonville’s business and political leadership, supports the project.

Martin said his economic model and industry surveys that generate his firm’s findings are confidential. Andrew Miller, the environmental institute’s executive director and legal counsel, reiterated Thursday that information should be public given the enormous taxpayer investment in the dredging.

In a letter to task force members, Martin said he normally does not respond to critiques “by biased organizations hired by polarized groups ... I feel it is incumbent on me to set the record straight with actual fact.”

The task force is in the process of creating a request for proposals to have an independent peer review of Martin’s report.

The consultant said he’s “never had any issues” with a peer review and that such a study would come to similar conclusions.

MARTIN’S FINDINGS

Martin’s report says 24,340 people are employed in port-dependent jobs, an increase of 2,131 jobs from the previous 2009 study.

The breakdown of that figure is important:

■ Direct jobs are with businesses that move cargo in and out of the port. That work employed 9,667 workers.

■ “Induced jobs” pump money through the economy when those workers spend their paychecks on everything from groceries to housing. That accounts for 10,100 jobs.

■ “Indirect jobs” stem from the port-dependent businesses spending money locally for items such as utilities, office supplies, contracted services, maintenance and construction. That generates 4,573 jobs.

The biggest share of jobs the report says are positively impacted by JaxPort — 108,260 — are referred to as “related” jobs, a category that has generated the most controversy.

These jobs are off port property at places that handle goods that went through the port. They could be Northeast Florida manufacturers that use JaxPort to export their products abroad. Related jobs are not “generated” by the port, and although they may benefit from port activity, many would exist without the port.

Citing container cargo growth and its changing composition — like JaxPort’s break into the Asian cargo market — “related” jobs have ballooned from 42,647 in 2009 to the 108,260 in his newest report.

Jaffee has been critical of including related jobs, saying it easily misleads most people not well-versed in the nuances of jobs categories. “It could generate another urban myth,” he said.

Martin’s report also found that, if JaxPort does not dredge its channel to 47 feet, it could lose out on a potential 15,396 direct, induced and indirect jobs by 2035. That number was 13,844 in his 2009 report. Even with the river fully dredged, JaxPort would have to aggressively market itself and go after business, he said.

ENVIRONMENTAL ISSUES

Thursday’s sprawling task force meeting also included presentations by Florida Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad, who emphasized the port’s importance to the state, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Local environmentalists say dredging could damage the river — potentially increasing salinity levels to a point that threatens important wetlands and sea grasses.

Corps officials emphasized “only minor” salinity changes would be attributable to the project. It’s also pledged to monitor the river for 10 years following completion of the project.

But the St. Johns Riverkeeper says the Corps report has “shortcomings” and is “dismayed by the lack of scrutiny that was afforded such a speculative and expensive public project.” The organization passed a resolution in the spring opposing the project for a laundry list of concerns. The group is weighing legal options in the future should those concerns go unaddressed.

Nate Monroe: (904) 359-4289

Comments (1)

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johnctaughtme
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johnctaughtme 08/07/14 - 09:34 pm
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Isaiah D. Hart did not have

Isaiah D. Hart did not have the benefit of high-paid consultants, but on the other hand, he was likely dealing with people who had a considerable bit of "walking around sense". When he built his cabin and trading post roughly where the Jacksonville Landing is now, he was recognizing and acknowledging the importance of the river to trade and economy of the area. The importance of ports and local and regional economies should be obvious by the population centers which developed around the seaports on both coasts of the U.S. and Canada, as well as the Great Lakes.

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