As the county seeks funding for water-based economic development, Gulf District Schools is looking to the sky.
The district has applied for grant funding from Triumph Gulf Coast to create a program that within three years would begin to offer students a pathway to industry certification as an unmanned aircraft, or drone, operator.
And the timing, with a company involved in the industry slated to imminently expand into the Industrial Park in Dalkeith, seems most punctual.
Triumph Gulf Coast is the legislatively-created body established to disburse some $1 billion in BP fine dollars within eight Northwest Florida counties over the next 15 years.
The primary aim is to create the infrastructure, including workforce development, to facilitate economic growth in the region.
The Board of County Commissioners is seeking $28 million in grant funding for the construction of a dry dock facility to be leased by Eastern Shipbuilding as part of that company’s long-planned expansion into Gulf County.
The hope is that the county will be presented by Triumph staff with a term sheet for the project at next week’s Triumph board meeting.
The school district has already submitted several grant applications to Triumph, seeking funding to establish a culinary arts program at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School and to expand agricultural-based instruction at Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School.
The distinct also seeks to purchase new buses as part of an overhaul of its aging fleet.
Further, as of the past two weeks, the district is seeking $750,000 from Triumph to establish a drone program at both high schools.
The application aligns with Triumph eligibility provisions linked to supporting programs for education and workforce development in disproportionally affected counties, such as Gulf.
In addition, the program adheres to Triumph priorities for boosting household incomes in those impacted counties while enhancing or leveraging existing assets, including education providers.
Taking out the bureaucrat-speak, that’s about creating high paying long-haul jobs in counties where such things have been lacking for years.
“Drones will be as transformational as computers were in the 1970s,” said Superintendent of Gulf County Schools Jim Norton. “Their widely-varied applications can be used in so many different career fields.
“The possibilities are nearly endless and it is very exciting to offer our students the opportunity to be a part of this cutting-edge technology.”
According to the executive summary for the grant application, the funding would allow the school district to implement a certification program that, by the end of the third year, would be a “fully implemented, viable program working toward complete sustainability.”
The district would contribute roughly $652,000, much of that in-kind, during the life of the grant funding.
The district would hire a drone aviation technicians to train teachers and oversee the program, obtain drones and related equipment, purchase curriculum and certification exams.
According to a timeline, the district would shape the bricks of program foundation with a goal of full implementation at both high schools within a year of receiving funding.
“Florida is among the top 10 states predicated to create jobs and revenue as production and use of drones continues,” Norton said. “We want to lead the pack in preparing students for those jobs.”
According to a recent study, the drone industry is predicted to create nearly 50,000 jobs in Florida, as much as 40 percent of which would be created in Northwest Florida.
The district’s application was the subject of brief discussion during last month’s meeting of the BOCC.
SkyBorne Technologies, Inc., which uses drones in work for companies in the renewable energy and telecommunications fields, is slated to set up shop in the county’s Industrial Park soon, said Assistant County Administrator Warren Yeager.
The company already has a lease agreement with the county.
Yeager said the company would create 20 local jobs upon establishing operations here with 50-75 jobs created over the long-term.
County Commissioner Sandy Quinn, Jr., noted the news and the district’s efforts to create a drone program.