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Panelists Answer Jacksonville Residents' Questions About Deepening St. Johns River

Hundreds of First Coast residents came out to a town hall meeting last night to discuss deepening the St. Johns River. The crowd that gathered at the University of North Florida was split on the issue.

There were no presentations at the town hall, just a big table at the front of the room where eight panelists responded to the crowd's questions and comments about the proposed deepening of Jacksonville's port.

"Are there any estimate studies on how much of the commercial shipping we will capture if and when the river is dredged?" George Catalano asked.

UNF history Professor Alan Bliss asked, "Have the Florida DOT and the U.S. Department of Transportation weighed in on the likely infrastructure impacts?"

"From a manufacturer's perspective, we're ready for JAXPORT to compete for our cargo," said Russell Schweiss, director of corporate communications and community relations at Rayonier Advanced Materials.

Others wondered: What will happen to the port of the river is not dredged? Is this a roundabout way of subsidizing the export of American jobs? How can Jacksonville be the Bold New City of the South if it's not willing to make bold decisions?

UNF sociology Professor David Jaffee cautioned the public to be skeptical of economic projections, saying proponents of large, taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects follow a standard formula: "Underestimate the costs, overestimate the revenues, undervalue the environmental impact and overvalue the economic-development effects."

But Eric Bush with the Army Corps of Engineers assured the crowd the project has been evaluated using the best possible environmental models.

JAXPORT CEO Brian Taylor said there was a lot of public debate before Savannah invested millions of dollars in port infrastructure that led to a multi-fold increase in its traffic.

"I'm sure there were a lot of people that said, 'We'll never compete with Charleston. Why are we trying to catch them?' But they did. And I say to you: Why not us?" Taylor said.

And Jacksonville Longshoremen's Association President Vince Cameron said he thinks the proposal will be a job creator.

"I'm not averse to us finding a way to save our river because it is a natural resource and we don't get to replace it when it's gone," Cameron said. "I also say that the folks that are walking this planet are also a natural resource, and they need jobs."

The conversation will continue this week when the Mayor's Port Task Force meets on Wednesday.