No Plan B for county officials






As Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc. moves ahead with awards and sifting through applications, Gulf County is at threat of being left behind in first-year funding.

Meanwhile, other efforts to kick-start the Port of Port St. Joe have thus far proved insufficient.

While legislation passed last year allocated $15 million to Gulf County from the first-year allocation of $300 million Triumph has in the bank, there is no guarantee that the county’s $15 will be received this year or in future years, only that legislation earmarked a percentage of the dollars to the county.

And currently the Triumph board has projects with full applications which total over $300 million.

None of those full applications, submitted after projects were deemed eligible in the pre-application process, is from Gulf County.

The Board of County Commissioners decided last year that the lone project to be submitted would be the floating dry dock to be constructed as part of Eastern Shipbuilding’s long-ago announced expansion into Gulf County.

The cities of Port St. Joe and Wewahitchka declined to submit projects in deference to the BOCC’s priority.

The Gulf County School Board and Gulf Coast State College’s proposal for a STEM center at the Gulf/Franklin Center was also put on hold.

In significant measure, that was due to language in Triumph legislation which instructs the board to put a higher priority in considering projects approved by county commissioners.

However, as the Triumph board’s attorney opined early in the process, county commission approval is not required for eligibility.

Two other county proposals were submitted during pre-application, one from the Port Theatre and another from the North Port St. Joe Project Area Committee.

Neither was deemed eligible during pre-application.

County officials, as late as last week during a workshop with the Port St. Joe Port Authority, said there is no Plan B for Triumph funding; the Eastern project is the county’s project.

Despite being deemed eligible in pre-application, though, a full application for the dry dock project has yet to be submitted and it is unclear when it will be.

County officials have privately expressed concern about the lack of an application given the amount of money involved with projects already in the application phase.

In part, the delay in applicatioin is due to the link with another Eastern project in Bay County, which has brought considerable debate to the Triumph board regarding the eligibility of private companies for Triumph awards.

The Triumph board’s attorney shared an opinion last month that while the Triumph board can make such awards, it should do so understanding that such awards may run afoul of the Florida Legislature.

And state lawmakers still must earmark in future years the entire $1.2 billion or so Triump will disburse over 15 years.

So, there remains no full application for the dry dock; during a presentation earlier this year William Harrison, representing Eastern, said the dry dock project would not move forward without Triumph funding.

The BOCC has already approved a $400,000-plus contract for engineering inspection services for that project, though it remains unclear when it might come to fruition.

And while the Eastern project is in a state of flux, a new road to the former mill site bulkhead paid for by the county and St. Joe Company has yet to result in any shipping by a wood-pellet company leasing land from the Port Authority and St. Joe.

The company hoped to be shipping through the Port of Port St. Joe during the first quarter of 2018.

Meanwhile, as Gulf County goes unrepresented among Triumph projects in the application phase, Franklin County has two projects with full applications submitted, Wakulla County four, Santa Rosa County two and Walton County two.

Bay County has full applications submitted for seven projects, the most in the region and one of which has already received a Triumph award.

Escambia and Okaloosa counties each have four proposals in full application as the Triumph board prepares to next meet June 12.

Noteworthy to Gulf County’s representative on the Triumph board, Jason Shoaf, is the number of education and workforce development projects, in Bay, Franklin and Wakulla counties already within the full application process.

Shoaf has been outspoken about a desire to see such programs across the region.

“I can’t overemphasize the importance of developing a workforce pipeline in all parts of our region,” Shoaf said. “A personal goal is to develop educational infrastructure throughout our entire region.

“The workforce proposals already approved along with others in development will offer real opportunities to all our children to earn a certificate or degree while in high school without incurring student loan debit after high school in some cases.”

Shoaf noted that seven of the eight counties in the region have submitted projects pertaining to workforce development and education; the exception is Gulf County.

He noted that officials from the Wakulla, Franklin and Gulf school systems recently attended a workshop in Wakulla to lay the groundwork for developing and implementing such projects.

“Hopefully (the Gulf County School Board) will begin to develop something soon,” Shoaf said.