The name could not be more appropriate for the eight coastal counties of Northwest Florida.

 

 

The name could not be more appropriate for the eight coastal counties of Northwest Florida.

With the passage last week of a $1.5 billion bill pertaining to Triumph Gulf Coast, the Florida Legislature has ratified that each of those counties, including Gulf, will see, at minimum, more than $60 million to diversify and grow local economies through 2033.

In the immediate, the bill earmarks $15 million to Gulf County the first year, money already in state coffers awaiting a transfer to Triumph Gulf Coast.

The legislation calls for the state to immediately transfer the initial $300 million to the Triumph Gulf Coast Trust Fund.

“This will be probably the most important legislation that has ever passed the legislature with respect to growth and great jobs in Northwest Florida,” said Allen Bense, former House Speaker and now chairman of the Triumph Gulf Coast board.

The bill, having passed unanimously in both chambers of the Florida Legislature, is before Gov. Rick Scott for his signature before becoming law.

Chris Holley, executive director of the county Economic Development Coalition said that given Scott’s projected run for the U.S. Senate next year and the strength of the GOP in Northwest Florida, it would seem doubtful Scott would veto the legislation.

The legislation reached several key hurdles that county officials had lobbied to leap from the outset of the current legislative session.

The first was to ensure that each of the eight counties most-impacted by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, would receive a dedicated amount of dollars from the Triumph pot.

The House proposed 4 percent, the Senate 5 percent and the two sides settled on 5 percent for each county in the first year and 4 percent per year thereafter.

Secondly, county officials sought to expand beyond five members the Triumph Gulf Coast board, the aim to provide representation for the smaller counties of Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla.

The legislation calls for the board to grow by two members with those members coming from the smaller counties.

And, finally, county officials wanted to ensure county governments would have a role in vetting and ranking projects before submission to the Triumph board.

“The language indicates we will recommend projects to the Triumph board,” said Warren Yeager, the county’s coordinator for the federal RESTORE Act and, as of today, the new executive director of the EDC with Holley’s retirement.

In Gulf County, that was particularly important as the county was the first among the eight counties to appoint a committee, comprised of residents and county officials, to receive and screen project applications.

“The bill could not have come out better for us,” Yeager said.

Yeager said the immediate task for county officials is to approach Eastern Shipbuilding, which is leasing a portion of the mill site bulkhead, to determine the company’s needs as it expands operations to meet a $10 billion Coast Guard contract.

The development of the Port of Port St. Joe is also high on the list, with Eastern and port needs dovetailing, Yeager said.

“The first thing we’d to have to do is find what we need to do to create jobs for Eastern and the port,” Yeager said, adding that effort would have both a workforce and economic development element to it.

“These dollars are about improving the workforce and the economy of these eight counties.”

The goal is not just adding jobs, but luring in high-paying jobs to raise the pay scale for local workers.

And, Yeager added, the individual county allocations earmark only 40 percent of the total $1.5 billion Triumph will receive through 2033.

That encourages county elected officials to work with other counties on potentially regional projects to leverage additional Triumph funds, Yeager said.

“It is a very good bill,” Holley said.

And, maybe, more than anything, the passage of Triumph, the progress on other revenue streams stemming out of RESTORE, provides optimism that seven years after Deepwater Horizon, counties impacted by that oil spill will finally see money promised.

“We all wondered if we would ever see any of these dollars,” Yeager said. “Now, it means $15 million immediately for Gulf County.”

Kim Wilmes, president of Florida’s Great Northwest, as regional economic development agency, said the passage of the Triumph legislation was a “landmark.”

“The region’s legislators, supported by legislative leadership, have made it possible for the affected counties to chart a new future built on a more robust, diverse and forward-thinking foundation,” she said.

The county has vetted, with consultant Dewberry and its RESTORE committee, some three dozen projects.

Those include a project, beach restoration, to be funded from first-year funds from the so-called Pot 1, or direct allocation under the RESTORE Act, as well as projects submitted for so-called Pot 3 funds.

Pot 3, overseen by a consortium of the 23 coastal counties in Florida, will bring another $12 million to the county over the next 15 years.

Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka sewer and water projects, screened and vetted in the Pot 1 process, comprise the bulk of the application submissions for Pot 3 funds.

A county project is the construction of breakwater or sub-surface structures near the Stump Hole to slow or alter the rate of erosion on St. Joseph Peninsula.

The county hopes to leverage those Pot 3 funds to broaden the reach of the $12 million.