The crystallization of a dream now stands at the end of Field of Dreams Avenue.
That was how U.S. Rep. Steve Southerland described last week’s official opening of the North Florida Child Development, Inc. Early Child Development and Family Resource Center in Port St. Joe.
Under a glorious azure cloudless sky, a crowd gathered to cut the ribbon on Gulf County’s first new school in more than 40 years.
“It’s surreal,” said Sharon Gaskin, president and CEO of NFCD and the dynamo behind the crystallization of the dream of her board’s some seven years ago. “It’s pretty satisfying. This was an accomplishment because this was a struggle at times.
“It is something I am very proud of.”
The new $5 million facility replaces the old Highland View Elementary School site used by NFCD and expands on the foundation of services at that facility.
The Early Child Development and Family Resource Center sits on two-and-a-half acres and is 18,000 square feet. It has two additional classrooms – 10 total – with room to add two more, a state-of-the-art kitchen, a multi-purpose community room and will offer an array of medical services in collaboration with the Gulf County Health Department.
The facility brings 10 new jobs to the community. NFCD has a Gulf County payroll of $1.8 million with a $7 million annual impact to the county, Gaskin noted.
“This is a vision that became a reality,” said Damon McNair, NFCD board chairman. “It took us several years to get to this point, but we got here.”
The facility is also a product of wide ranging public/private partnership.
Funding came from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Florida Department of Community Affairs with a major/grant loan package from U.S. Department of Agricultural Rural Development.
The city of Port St. Joe sponsored a Community Development Block Grant for infrastructure such as the road Field of Dreams Avenue.
The Board of County Commissioners and Gulf County School Board were supporters of the project.
“This has been seven years of blood, sweat and tears,” said Rural Development state director Richard Machek. “A facility like this is a dream. You have set the bar very, very high for the rest of the state of Florida.
“When the local community gets behind projects like that, they happen.”
And that is the private side of the creation of the facility.
The St. Joe Company donated the land. The Kiwanis Club sponsored one classroom and the Early Learning Coalition, Capital City Bank, Centennial Bank and the United Way all provided various levels of funding.
Gulf Correctional Institute and its inmates, along with private citizens built playhouses and other items to be raffled for the new center. A golf tournament raised more funding from the community.
It was all part of Gaskin’s mission and pledge on one federal loan – “You get me that $300,000 and I will turn it into $5 million.”
“This was a seven-year plan and you do not do a project like this in a small community without the support of the community,” Gaskin said. “Locally we had so much support.
“We have been blessed with all-stars from the private sector, the community and local, state and federal governments.”
The new center also expands the educational infrastructure of the county.
“This is impressive,” said Loretta Costin, director of the Gulf/Franklin campus of Gulf Coast State College. “We are so fortunate to have a facility like this.”
Barry Sellers, director of the Economic Development Council, said that when potential clients see the corridor of U.S. 98 in which stands Sacred Heart Hospital on the Gulf, the Gulf/Franklin campus and now the NFCD facility they will come away impressed.
“Not many counties have these kind of facilities to offer,” Sellers said. “Education and economic development are one. This is the beginning of economic development, providing the education and medical services young children need.”
Southerland, who was present and keynote speaker for the official groundbreaking a little more than a year ago, echoed many of Sellers sentiments. He noted the importance of a facility bringing programs and services to children up to age 5 and their families.
“It is really an honor to see a vision crystallized,” Southerland said. “When you have a vision, you grow strong and you will not perish. When that vision grows, good things happen. America is a country where if you dream it it will happen.
“We are going to grow healthy children, we are going to grow healthy parents and we are going to grow the relationship between them. As a family grows so grows the nation. I challenge you not to rest, to not be complacent.”
This is no issue with Gaskin.
Firstly, she insured that the transition to one school site to another was smooth. While there was a week or so lag between sites – the new facility opens for school Monday – teachers were kept on the payroll and worked an outreach schedule by going to students’ homes.
“The transition was very smooth,” Gaskin said. “The biggest thing for me was people needed to keep being paid.”
Secondly, while basking in the satisfaction in a job well done, Gaskin was already thinking about possibilities for expanding programs at the new facility.
The kitchen could be used for a culinary class. The community room as a host of potential purposes.
“I am already on the next page,” Gaskin said.