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Recovery 2019

Tim Croft
The Star

Don’t let any reader by fooled by the headline; this will be our annual review of the year that came to an end this week.

However, wasn’t this year, this 2019, about rebuilding, about continuing to recover from a savage Category 5 hurricane that landed smack in our lap just two months before year even started.

This not school, but recovery could be assessed as mixed over the past year, with a good number of signs to wonder whether the glass is half full or half empty.

There are certainly positives, such as over 90 percent of businesses existing before Michael reopening (goodbye Sunset Coastal Grill, we will miss you), a boon in the building sector and the return of tourists in numbers nobody was predicting.

There is Skyborne and all the advancement on turning this into a drone county and a long-term recovery committee has been established as a non-profit corporation and is moving ahead on a host of fronts.

There are indications Eastern Shipbuilding will finally expand into Gulf County early this year.

But there was also a decline in the tax base, less than expected but significant nonetheless, and a tour of the county continues to show too many empty lots, destroyed homes and businesses and blues roofs.

So, identifying the top stories of the year, always a highly subjective exercise was rendered more difficult by the soundtrack of recovery playing daily.

But, having written that, here is one stab on the rest of the top 10 stories of the year; and as they say about opinions everybody has one.

Nonetheless, here goes and please no betting.

Droning on

The arrival of Skyborne Technology to Wewahitchka appeared to be very good economic news, though Hurricane Michael desired to intercede.

But, Michael and all, as 2019 ends Skyborne, which designs and manufactures manned and unmanned aircraft, has proved just the preview of the possibilities.

County economic development officials see the potential for a technology cluster spanning the county.

Skyborne expanded south to Port St. Joe and purchased Costin Airport in the spring, is working on a facility at the airport for both operations and education and is working to secure contracts with several countries in Central and South America.

Skyborne has also entered into a partnership to provide training and, in the future, job opportunities in a rapidly-growing economic sector.

Meanwhile, Gulf District Schools secured a grant from Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc., to facilitate the establishment of a drone program at each junior/senior high school.

And Gulf Coast State College has also expanded its drone programs, becoming an educational partner with Skyborne and providing office space for the company working with the public schools on its drone training program.

In practical effect, a student may soon be able to move from high school to college to employment in a growing, and not-bad-paying field, without leaving the county.

A year of litigation

Surely, 2019 was no record-breaker for lawsuits involving local governments, but the past year provided plenty of billable hours.

There was the lawsuit Taunton Sand lodged against the county over the latter’s use of the borrow pit in Honeyville and the process by which a contract was awarded.

The sides mutually dismissed the lawsuit shortly before the death of Judge David Taunton.

There was also the acrimonious divorce between the county and Waste Pro, punctuated by Waste Pro’s dismantling of a transfer station the county will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace.

The county and the solid waste contractor’s lawsuit remain open.

The most dominant litigation, however, and it is not really that close, was over plans to renovate the 10th Street Park.

County action that seemed inconsequential at the time became the subject of bitter public outcry, particularly from the residential neighbors of the existing park.

The debate spanned months; workshops and public meetings became lengthy debates about the project.

Ultimately, 12 of those neighbors filed a lawsuit the consequence of which was to stop the project, with the parties going their separate ways until such time as the city may pursue a development order.

That would result, in all likelihood, with round two.

They returned

In the days after Hurricane Michael, county officials, reviewing budgets, chose to slice in half the projected budget for the Gulf County Tourist Council.

There was little predicting how much rental inventory or tourists would return.

Those doubts proved vastly misplaced.

Not only did tourists return, but bed tax revenue for the year was roughly on par with that of just four years ago, though down 22.4 percent compared to the prior fiscal year.

That percentage became the norm by spring, indicating how much rental housing had indeed returned to the market, an impressive number.

In addition, a host of visitors traveled to Port St. Joe, Gulf County and Mexico Beach to be a part of the rebuild and recovery.

They helped clean, surveyed beaches, pledged to return and helped an area return to a bit of normalcy post-Michael.

In terms of dollars and cents, the TDC collected over $1.62 million in bed taxes for the year; nearly identical to revenue four years ago, the first year the TDC began collecting a fifth-penny in bed tax for parks and recreation.

Collections were off by $557,000, but from a record-breaking year when collections topped $2.1 million.

And, as it turned out, collections for the year came in $600,000 above budget.

Riding the scallop roller coaster

Like Waldo, the year began with Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission researchers wondering where the scallops were.

During a workshop post-Michael, researchers indicated that the storm had wiped out the adult population in St. Joseph Bay, including those scallops in protective cages to facilitate restoration efforts.

A minor amount of juvenile spat was detected, but the season was in doubt and a final decision would be based on what was found during June/July adult population surveys.

What was found after a winter and spring of reproduction is, at least this year, scallops may act like rabbits time to time.

The density count in St. Joseph Bay was the highest it has been in decades, according to those who have long plied local waters and the highest in any state harvest area in any individual year, save one year, in the past decade.

What had been a collapsed population in 2016, less than one scallop per transect line, exploded to more than 60 scallops per transect line.

To provide just a tiny example of how that impacted the local season and bed-tax collections: August was the best month of the year, by far, for the TDC.

Further, adhering to local feedback the FWC set the 2019 season to open in mid-August and close in late-September and followed that same feedback in setting the same date in 2020.

Restoration efforts will also continue and while research is still early, those efforts seem to have found some traction.

Mr. Shoaf goes to Tallahassee

When he began the year, Jason Shoaf was the vice-president of his family’s local company and a member of the board of Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc.

As the year ends, Shoaf is preparing for his first 60-day session of the Florida Legislature.

The District 7 seat in the House of Representatives was vacated by Halsey Beshears after he was tapped by the new governor to take the reins of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

A special election was called and the Republican primary featured four candidates including Shoaf.

The race between the two front-runners, including Shoaf the entire way, had a few ugly episodes, including a disputed accusation from one opponent after one vocal altercation.

But, Shoaf dominated the Republican vote in the primary, winning a majority in every county in the sprawling Northwest Florida district, and coasted to a victory in the June general election.

Maybe most importantly, Shoaf occupies the seat that represents Gulf County in the Legislature, a seat empty during the first session after Hurricane Michael and, local officials will quietly agree, cost the county in 2019.

As for the Triumph board seat Shoaf was forced to vacate upon his election that will be staying in the community, with Port St. Joe’s Matt Terry, another lifetime resident of the county, named Shoaf’s successor.

Sand on the beach, finally

Among the items on this list there is a relatively common thread: time.

That is no truer than the beach restoration project on St. Joseph Peninsula.

Rarely has a project, badly needed when first announced, experienced so many bumps in the road, from initial bids that were too high to dredge issues to the weather.

As for that last one, consider that this newspaper in its Thursday, Oct. 3, 2018 edition said in bold headline letters that the project would start the following Monday.

Michael arrived in less than a week.

In any case, five years after discussion began on the need for a maintenance project on the peninsula beaches, four years after South Gulf voters approved taxing themselves to provide a local match (the first vote was a no), three years after the county was approved to use Triumph Gulf Coast grant funds for at least part of the project, new sand hit the beach in August.

The project was winnowed a bit from its initial scope, concentrating on the beaches between the Stump Hole rock revetment and Billy Joe Rish State Park on the theory that sand migrating with natural currents will be carried north to fortify beaches beyond Billy Joe Rish Park.

That has caused some rancor among residents who have been paying the additional taxes but saw no new sand on their beaches, but the project went off without a hitch after causing more gray hairs among county officials than they’d prefer to count.

A stellar turtle year

The landscape was changed by Hurricane Michael (bye, bye dunes) and the relocation of nests on the south end continued for another year, but what a year.

When turtle patrols volunteers are characterizing the season as “stellar” and “banner” it has been a good year for the little hatchlings that have a 1 in 1,000 chance of living to adulthood.

The number of nests on the peninsula numbered 198, above last year’s (the year of Michael) 137.

Subtracting 25 that likely washed away as one must, 173 nests were evaluated; after hatching the clutch or nest is examined.

The Indian Pass Turtle Patrol counted 83 nests this year, a banner year with four of those nests being green turtles, somewhat rare along local beaches.

The Gulf and East Bay Turtle Patrol reported a tougher season.

A number that stood out on the peninsula was the 65 percent hatch success on the peninsula; the percentage of eggs that hatch during a typical season is in the 50th percentile.

Some of that success could be attributable to the relocations of nests from the southern end of the peninsulas to north of Billy Joe Rish Park.

Each of the past two years the number of nests relocated has totaled 76, helping to create something of a mini-hatchery.

This year, from the 198 nests on the peninsula beach or the 83 on Indian Pass, from the 9,888 eggs produced on the peninsula.

Triumph tensions

Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc. was established to disburse the bulk of Florida’s share of the settlement with BP, about $1.5 billion, and others over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

The spill was in 2010.

A decade later the county, particularly the BOCC, has experienced an up and down year with the board of Triumph.

The board includes a representative from Gulf County, not in the initial legislation creating Triumph but something the county lobbied for and secured.

There were grants to the public schools for an expansion of welding, to establish a drone program, enhance agriculture offerings at the north end of the county

Most importantly, the Triumph board established a fund for counties hard hit by Hurricane Michael to assist in property tax losses: the BOCC, Gulf District Schools and both cities were provided grant dollars essential to maintain operations.

But, for the BOCC, the Triumph grant to mitigate tax loss arrived wrapped in a debate over whether the BOCC was correct in purchasing St. Joseph Bay Golf Club.

Some on the Triumph board said the entire situation provided “bad optics”, but the BOCC held to its position it had used bed tax tourist dollars to buy the course and the membership had approached the BOCC before the course, used by residents, visitors and snowbirds alike, was to be closed.

Whether all of the debate is a later factor as the county seeks Triumph funding for other projects, particularly a biomass-to-powder plant with an application before Triumph, is a question for 2020.

Florida tea

They may have to change the lyrics to the “Beverly Hillbillies” if a couple of out-of-state oil companies realize their hopes.

Both Spooner Oil out of Mississippi and Cholla Petroleum out of Texas were granted permits by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, despite tremendous public outcry in the form of letters and emails, to drill exploratory oil wells in Gulf and Calhoun counties.

The permits are good for one year.

The Gulf County well would be situated within the Wetappo watershed and all seven would be drilled in an area bounded by the Dead Lakes and Apalachicola River.

Public safety before all

Gulf County can go years without a single homicide, without a single violent crime.

That is part of the attraction of living in this paradise.

But this year we had not just one but two murders in the county and one involved an officer of the law.

One murder involved some kind of dispute among some folks who had taken up residence, legally or not, in Gulf Aire after the storm and may or may not have involved drugs.

The exact circumstances may never be known because the suspect, cornered in Bay County, shot himself.

The other incident began in Bay County, following a gas drive-away and involved officers chasing from Bay County and Tyndall Air Force Base before a Gulf County Sheriff’s deputy picked up the chase.

The initial details revealed the man was not armed, but was an escaped felon in a stolen car brandishing what appeared to all on the scene to be a gun.

The deputy shot him dead.

After the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, what was revealed is that a long-time deputy had acted with courage behind his oath to serve and protect.