County ‘commemorates beautifully’ Eastern shipyard opening
Standing beside a pair of freshly finished, pumpkin-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 Thursday morning.
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 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, Eastern’s president Joey D’Isernia, likened the moment to when Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh wrote “Brother, commemorate me thus beautifully” as he penned lines as he gazed out over the Grand Canal in Dublin.
“His words resonate today,” said D’Isernia. “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,” he said.
“One word kept coming to mind when I reflected on this community and the Panhandle as a whole – Resilience,” he said. “What we have endured over the past few years, is and remains a heavy burden. But the way we have forged through is reflective of our greatest asset, our character.
“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,” D’Isernia continued. “And while that outside economic infusion is vital – this is our home. The sand and mud follow me in the house, my kids play and go to school here and as I look around at the crowd, I see lifelong friends – Sunday dinner guests and a community that knows work, faith and what it means to stand in the face of hardship.
“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 future generations.
“We at Eastern find grace in reinvesting in our community and supporting our neighbors. We know the work ethic and absolute commitment to craftmanship that are organic to the residents of Port St Joe,” D’Isernia. “We could not be more excited about the future at this new facility – so let me be the first to say – welcome to the Eastern family and thank you for welcoming our family into your home.”
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 D’Isernia as he snipped a blue ribbon to close the ceremony.
“This is an exciting day for Gulf County and the rest of Florida’s 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,” he said. Thank you to everyone who worked to make this opportunity possible.”
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. The PSJ facility expands Eastern’s labor pool into a new region and will not be competing with ESG’s other shipyards for skilled trades.
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 City’s 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. Andrew’s 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.