In the late 1930s, the paper mill's backyard on Bay Harbor was the de facto city port, and the modern-day Port Panama City was the home of Wainwright Shipyard, a wartime shipbuilding factory.
Now, everything is coming "full circle" as Port Director Wayne Stubbs put it, as the port officially has purchased its old home from WestRock to expand its facilities.
"The Port Authority would have never come into existence if not for the paper mill," said Tem Fontaine, technical manager at WestRock paper mill and a Bay County native. "The mill incrased shipping activity, which led to the Army Corps of Engineers building the West Pass."
The West Past paved the way for shipping by enabling the expansion of both the port and paper mill.
At an official signing ceremony, officials for the port and WestRock called the deal a historic event, and State Rep. Jay Trumbull, Panama City Commissioner Mike Nichols and Bay County Commissioner Mike Nelson lauded the decision.
The deal has been in the works for about five years. The Bay Harbor facilities - a 41-acre property the Port is purchasing for $13.6 million, with the option of buying another 27 acres for $6 million - still are used by the paper mill, but are showing the wear and tear of more than 80 years of use.
In addition, the 32 foot East Channel, which services the paper mill, has become insufficient.
To convince the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge the channel, the paper mill needed to show there was a public interest in doing so, so it turned to the port. Officials at the port, who were looking for a place to expand, found Bay Harbor to be ideal.
"There's enough facant space it will give us the capacity to nearly double our capacity to handle cargo over the next 20 to 30 years," said Stubbs, who added the expansion also is expted to bring jobs to the area.
Officials have described the purchase as a wedding of two businesses that have been intertwined since their beginnings.
Fontaine said the paper mill was the catalyst for the port. The mill requires a steady stream of wood and puts out a steady stream of paper products, which mandates a lot of transportation. That led to the parade of boats coming and going.
In 1934, the Army Corps of Engineers decided there was so much traffic in the water near the mill that West Pass needed to be dug for safety reasons, Fontaine said. After that, the mill started to handle the occasional commercial boat for the greater area.
That drew the interest of a few Panama City residents, who thought the city should create a commercial port. So in 1945 the city began to eye the unused Wainwright Shipyard property.
The shipyard had stopped building boats as World War II drew to an end. It was owned by the United States Navy, and the Navy was reluctant to sell the site, according to a history written by former Port Director E. Harris Mercer. Starting in the late 1950s, the Port Authority worked out a series of leases with the Navy before it bought the port in 1961.
The facility grew quickly, according to Mercer, pulling in more and more commercial business. The shipping companies that had used the paper mill's port but did not actually supply the mill moved to the new port.
In the intervening years, the port and paper mill drifted apart, each growing in its own right. But eventually they grew to the point where each needed the other again.
"I can't think of a better partnership," said John O'Neal, the executive vice president of WestRock. "I think we are all going to be very proud."
The Port Authority plans to demolish the buildings on the newly purchased site and upgrade facilities to create a blank slate. The Army Corps still is looking over plans to deepen the East Channel from 32 to 36 feet, but is expected to sign off on them this week, according to Stubbs.
The work likely will start in 2018.
-Katie Landeck, The Panama City News Herald