{The following was originally written for the Opportunity Florida newsletter. The public/private partnership asked various members to write about post Hurricane Michael.)

 

Life has changed forever since Michael stormed ashore with its Category 5 winds and 20 foot storm surge. In Gulf County, most of our coastal homes and businesses were severely or catastrophically damaged. Millions of trees lay on the ground, roads were blocked, power lines and the grids that support them were gone and there was no means of local communication for days. Fortunately, the emergency response from the local, state and federal government was robust. An Incident Command team from Oregon provided leadership, the Governor visited daily for a week to assess/respond to our needs, utility companies and first responders were on the scene within hours and the County Commission met daily to orchestrate recovery efforts.

Recovery was greatly enhanced by the County negotiating with the Florida DOT to handle debris removal. This allowed for work to begin expediently and eliminated delays associated with FEMA reimbursement and the interest that accrues when counties borrow money to contract the work. An added silver lining was the debris companies immediately began to hire hundreds of workers at $15 dollar, which went a long way in preserving the county’s workforce.

Our Economic Development Coalition (EDC) staff participated in the daily emergency management briefings and focused on two objectives, finding emergency funding for our businesses and protecting our workforce. An early contact with Governor Scott resulted in the Department of Economic Opportunity agreeing to meet with businesses to facilitate Small Business Development Council (SBDC) Bridge Loans and Small Business Administration (SBA) Loans. EDC staff spread the word by internet and the old-fashioned way--posting flyers on business doors. Six days after the storm, a meeting was held in the Courthouse and 92 businesses attended. Application information was distributed, and the location of the assistance office was announced. The $50,000 SBDC bridge loan with zero percent interest was the program that breathed new life into many of our businesses. Over a hundred applied for and received the $50,000 loans and most within 10 days after application.

Workforce retention was enhanced by the debris company hiring workers. Career Source Gulf Coast used disaster assistance money to hire a hundred employees to assist with disaster recovery and, as importantly, the Gulf County School District found a way to open schools 15 days post storm. Evidence of workforce retention was supported by the July 2019 labor force numbers which indicated a decline of only 2.4 percent in the workforce and 3.2 percent in the number of employed over the preceding pre-storm July. School enrollment was 93 percent of pre-storm enrollment by December 2018 and had increased to 95.4 percent by March 2019.

All Gulf County businesses were closed for a week and began to open in the second week. Due to storm surge the south end of the County was slower to recover and by the one-month anniversary 41 percent of businesses remained closed including all the restaurants and gas stations. During the ensuing months, additional businesses opened and by the eight-month anniversary, 91 percent of all businesses were open. A survey indicated that an additional 4 percent were still in the process of rebuilding, leaving 5 percent choosing not to rebuild. Additionally, most businesses indicated that trade was up 20 to 30 percent over the preceding year, which may be attributable to the increased number of workers necessary to rebuild the community.

At the EDC, support for our existing businesses was priority one and at the same time we endeavored to keep our eye on the ball by working existing projects and remaining open to new ones. Pre-storm, Skyborne Technology was our existing project located in the County’s only spec building. The company was on the verge of fabricating airships, looking for a drone partner and a place to assemble and house the airships. EDC efforts consisted mostly of cheerleading and assistance with news releases and TV spots. The news releases sparked interest and Skyborne found a drone partner in Unmanned System Inc. and discovered the availability of the Costin Airport in Port St. Joe.

Skyborne has since purchased the airport, fabricated a test airship in their facility near Wewahitchka and is currently negotiating contracts with two foreign countries for their products. Gulf County, the EDC and Skyborne are applying for a Federal EDA grant to construct a hangar at the Costin Airport in support of Skyborne’s assembly functions and flight operations.

The publicity surrounding the Skyborne project played a part in Unmanned Safety Institute (USI) locating their regional office at the Gulf Franklin Campus of Gulf Coast State College. USI, the state’s contractor for high school drone training program, was a great addition to the aerospace presence in Gulf County and collaborative efforts with the College’s unmanned systems program and Skyborne Technology are on the horizon.

Opportunity Florida has been the source of referral for a couple of projects that the Gulf County EDC has been working including, a biofuel plant, a biomass plant and a factory to assemble shipping container homes. The Biofuel project is the most promising and negotiations are proceeding well.