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Funds to Benefit Economic Development in NW Florida

Source:  Pensacola News Journal / Triumph Gulf Coast, Inc. has yet to receive a dime of the $1.5 billion, but a standing room only crowd of about 100 filled the Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort Bayside Ballroom on Monday morning for its inaugural meeting.

The nonprofit corporation is overseeing 75 percent of all funds recovered by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in a $2 billion settlement with BP for economic damages to the state that resulted from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. Under the terms of the 2011 Oil Spill Economic Recovery Act, three-fourths of the money is to be put in an endowment to diversify the economy of coastal Northwest Florida. Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla counties stand to benefit economically from the settlement.

“Triumph Gulf Coast represents the best and biggest opportunity for economic development in Northwest Florida’s history. A billion and a half dollars is real money,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, who sponsored the Oil Spill Economic Recovery Act. “It gives us the chance, the opportunity, the obligation to be big, big players, not only to expand our existing economy but to diversify our economy. This is not boat docks and ball fields. This is tens of thousands of jobs.”

The Triumph board of directors said the nonprofit corporation will receive $300 million next year and then payments of $100 million each of the following years until $1.5 billion is obtained. Board member Allan Bense cautioned, though, that statutes are subject to change.

How that initial $300 million will be spent to benefit Northwest Florida is yet to be determined. The board of directors will administer a trust account established for the benefit of the counties from a portion of the proceeds recovered by the lawsuit. Each of the rewarded projects will require a matching fund and will be a contractual obligation in which recipients will pay back Triumph if they fail to fulfill the terms.

“We need to make sure when that check hits next year that we’re prepared to not spend it all, and trust me, I’m a singles and doubles guy. I’ve never been a home run hitter my whole life, but little singles and doubles over time add up to a lot of runs,” said Bense, former speaker of the Florida House. “I think we should be prudent. I think we need to be thoughtful. I think we should be deliberate in how we spend these dollars.”

The president of the Senate, speaker of the House, governor, attorney general and chief financial officer appointed the five board of directors in December of 2013. Stan Connally Jr., president and CEO of Gulf Power Company, Pam Dana, senior strategic advisor for Human & Machine Cognition, Stephen Riggs IV, partner at Carr, Riggs & Ingram, Bob Bonezzi, co-founder of Bonezzi Development Co., and Bense form the board.

The University of West Florida Center for Research and Economic Opportunity organized the inaugural meeting. Rick Harper, executive director of the UWF office of economic development and engagement, spoke about state, regional and economic factors from the BP oil spill. Harper said a misperception exists that money BP poured into the Panhandle after the oil spill resulted primarily in the increased tourism. He said BP compared 2011 statistics to those in 2008 and 2009 when the recession gripped Northwest Florida and overlooked other factors that contributed to the growth.

“The capacity of (Pensacola Beach) during the oil spill year was up a third,” Harper said. “The number of hotel rooms had increased by about a third.”

When the board opened the meeting for public comment, four of the first five speakers hailed from Escambia or Santa Rosa counties.

Chips Kirschenfeld, Escambia County senior scientist and division manager, spoke on behalf of county commissioner Grover Robinson IV (District 4). Kirschenfeld read a letter written by Robinson, who addressed the board in his capacity as Gulf Consortium chairman. Robinson missed the meeting to travel to Gainesville to be with his oldest child, a student at the University of Florida.

He suggested in the letter read by Kirschenfeld that Gulf Consortium and Triumph work together to maximize their resources and accomplish their common objectives. Robinson promised to arrange a meeting with the board of directors.

Fellow county commissioner Wilson Robertson (District 1) spoke in the public forum and stressed the importance of everyone remembering the $1.5 billion is for regional development.

“If you put a big plant down in another county near us, if it’s in the Panhandle, if it’s in the Gulf Coast in the eight counties who were affected, we as a region are going to benefit,” Robertson said.

Kirschenfeld backed what Robertson said by citing how Escambia County is benefiting from Airbus, an aircraft manufacturer in Mobile. As he reflected on the inaugural meeting, Kirschenfeld felt confident that the appointed board of directors will act in the best interests of the eight disproportionately affected counties.

“They’re going to have an opportunity to really vet a lot of the potential new businesses and new jobs coming into Northwest Florida,” he said, “and I think they’ll do a great job.”

The next Triumph board meeting is to be determined. Bense suggested sometime in the next 30 to 45 days at the same time and location.

 

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