Northwest Florida counties digging out and starting to rebuild after Hurricane Michael will be asked to reevaluate their priority lists for BP oil-spill money.
The Triumph Gulf Coast Board of Directors, which was set up by the Legislature to oversee settlement money from the Deepwater Horizon disaster, agreed Tuesday to give time for officials in hurricane-decimated counties to re-prioritize economic-development needs.
Triumph Gulf Coast works on issues in eight Northwest Florida counties, including Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla, which were among the hardest-hit areas in the Category 4 Hurricane Michael.
“When the chainsaws can’t be heard in the neighborhoods anymore and when the blue tarps come down, because someday they will come down, the jobs Triumph Gulf Coast is commissioned to induce and promote will be more needed than ever,” said Triumph board Chairman Don Gaetz, a former Senate president from Niceville.
The board — which moved its meeting Tuesday from hurricane-damaged Port St. Joe to Crestview — also agreed to give some “flexibility” in a performance timeline to a technical training program in Bay County that received funding in July. Bay County’s schools are expected to reopen by mid-November, about a month after the Oct. 10 storm.
Board member Jason Shoaf, a Port St. Joe native, said while some businesses have reopened, it may take weeks or months to understand the total economic impact of the storm.
“If the counties are given the opportunity, I believe from the conversations I’ve had, their priorities may have changed,” Shoaf said. “And if this board is willing to help in certain ways, it could make the difference in our communities coming back to life in six months or a year or two.”
The regional board was created to distribute to Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Wakulla and Walton counties three-quarters of the $2 billion the state will get over the next 13 years through the BP settlement from the 2010 Gulf of Mexico spill.
As part of its charge from the state Legislature, Triumph is expected to direct the money to regional projects rather than directly to individual businesses.
Board member Benjamin Lee, a Lynn Haven resident who oversees the Bay County region for Hancock Whitney Bank, said schools and water plants were not what Triumph was designed to fund, but he expects there will be a call for “bare essentials.”
Gaetz said the reprioritization offer isn’t to accentuate storm-recovery programs. However, he said local officials may find job creation has changed due to the storm, with rebuilding and simply sustaining jobs the immediate priority.
“I’m not suggesting we turn ourselves into a little FEMA, nor do I think we should take insurance companies off the hook and provide cash payments to people to help them put up a new roof,” Gaetz said. “That’s the job of the insurance industry, and we’re going to hopefully hold them to account for performance. But it may change the job-creation environment and what seems important.”
One business thrown further into flux was the oyster industry, which has struggled in recent years.
Before the storm, Triumph’s Oyster Industry Working Group received 51 applications, worth a combined $471 million, for proposals to address efforts to increase oyster production and other aquaculture.
“To be honest, I don’t really know where we are because of the storm damage,” Shoaf said.
Meanwhile Tuesday, the board backed an $8.5 million grant for improvements at Whiting Aviation Park in Santa Rosa County and tentatively advanced terms for a proposed $210 million aircraft maintenance project at Pensacola International Airport, which would draw up to $56 million from Triumph.
In July, the Triumph board gave its initial approval to the Pensacola airport project, which is expected to bring in 1,325 jobs.
VT Mobile Aerospace Engineering, which opened a new maintenance hangar at the airport in July, is expected to put up $35 million.
Other anticipated funding includes $3 million from the Legislature, $24 million from the governor’s Job Growth Grant Fund, $50 million from the Florida Department of Transportation and $20 million from city and county governments, according to Triumph paperwork.