We don’t know when. We don’t know how much. But sometime soon, a relatively large amount of money is expected to flood into Escambia County as a result of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Clean Water Act fines levied against BP and the RESTORE Act, which ensured 80 percent of those fines would remain in the Gulf region.
In preparation for what local officials have been ballparking between $100 and $200 million dollars, the Escambia County Commission has initiated its RESTORE Act Advisory Committee (RAAC, or if you prefer, ECRAAC). The body met for the first time in late March.
“It’s an awesome group of people,” said Bentina Terry, a vice president at Gulf Power Company, and the city of Pensacola’s representative on the RESTORE committee. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘These are some very talented and qualified folks the county has put together.”
By the end of the group’s first meeting, Terry had been unanimously voted to chair the nine-member advisory board. Together with Vice Chairman Alan McMillan, she will guide the committee as it tries to determine how best to use Escambia’s RESTORE money.
“It should be very cool,” Terry said.
Vision or Shovel-Ready?
Two distinct philosophical strains have developed on how best to process the RESTORE funds. The two tacts have been most eloquently expressed—at opposite ends of the spectrum—by Escambia County commissioners Grover Robinson and Wilson Robertson.
While Robinson would like to see a community vision developed, Robertson has pushed for a more shovel-ready approach.
“I truly believe that these issues that we decide on need to be transformational,” Robinson said during a commission meeting last month. “Because otherwise we’re just gonna throw projects up against the wall with no expectation of what we want to achieve —we’ve got to figure out what we want to achieve.”
Robertson told his fellow commissioners that he had no appetite for “a grandiose plan that takes years to develop and is put on a shelf.” He said ready-to-go-projects should be given priority during the advisory committee process.
“I wanna see ’em go to bat and get approved and get started as soon as that money comes in,” the commissioner said.
RESTORE committee Chairman Terry said she expects a diverse approach. A mix of vision and shovel-ready.
“It’s going to be a combination of both,” she said. “I think you have to look at a diversity of options that are going to really help the community move forward.”
Donnie McMahon, appointed to the committee by Commission Chairman Gene Valentino, said he expected that the advisory body would be diving into what Robinson referred to as “a little bit of visioning.” How else to find the proverbial “game-changers?”
“You gotta have a vision, right?” McMahon said. “What can you do for the next generation?”
Greg Beck, appointed by Commissioner Steven Barry to focus on financial issues, said the committee should take its time.
“You’ve got a lot of money, you can’t just go in there willy-nilly,” Beck said.
Part of the process required by the RESTORE Act is public input. Christian Wagley, selected by a collection of local environmental organizations to represent environmental concerns, is hoping the committee places emphasis on this aspect of the process.
“We need to set up a really meaningful public input process that helps the community establish what the community’s vision is and what the community wants to do,” Wagley said. “I think that only good things can come from having more and more people involved in the process.”
Wagley said he also hopes the committee will invite relevant experts to give presentations in an effort to gain a better understanding of community needs.
“I think we have people come and talk bout the environmental issues in the community, I think we have people come in and talk about economic issues in the community, I think we have people come in and talk about social issues in the community,” Wagley said. “I’m hoping we can have an expert come and talk about how the oil spill affected those areas of the community.”
Michelle Inere, selected by the whole county commission for an at-large seat on the committee, also stressed the need for a well thought-out process. She said the advisory board should consider how the money might transform the community.
“I think it can be a game-changer, if we use it wisely and we are good stewards of the money,” Inere said. “If we don’t do it right, it’s a missed opportunity.”
‘Twisting My Ear’
During the RESTORE committee’s initial meeting—what Terry described as “mostly a data dump”—members were briefed on governmental process and received a crash-course on the RESTORE Act, which essentially instructs that the Clean Water Act fines are to be used to restore areas that suffered—environmentally, economically—from the 2010 oil spill.
With the federal government and BP yet to arrive at a final dollar amount for the Clean Water Act fines, everything exists theoretically. As Steve Williams, a consultant hired by the county to work on RESTORE issues, put it to the committee: “We’re working without a net right now.”
“At this point,” Williams told them, “we’re really dealing with air, because we don’t know what those penalties are.”
Whatever Escambia’s share of the RESTORE money amounts to, there will be countless ways to spend it.
“I can tell you, if it’s $150 million, or if it’s $300 million, we’ve got a use for it,” said Beck.
The county commission created the RESTORE committee in part to insulate themselves from the guaranteed onslaught of pitches. Committee members are expected to have a lot of new best friends.
Beck said he hasn’t been approached by anyone with specific project proposals as of yet.
“Most of the people that have approached me have told me I was crazy,” he laughed.
Terry said the pitches thrown her way have consisted of “top-of-the-head, nothing-really-fleshed-out type of ideas.”
“A lot of people have ideas,” the chairman said.
As Pensacola’s representative on the committee, Terry said she will be looking toward the city’s urban core.
“I think the city has to look at the urban core,” she said, “and make sure those dollars are used to benefit the entirety of the urban core.”
Tammy Bohannon, selected by Commissioner Robinson to focus on governmental issues, said she will be looking for uses that produce jobs for the community.
“I’ve got some wonderful ideas,” she said. “Navy Federal, with all the jobs they’re creating, and maybe an I-10 connection, there’s just lots of ideas.”
McMahon said he has been approached by people with ideas— “not specific projects, but ideas”—about how to use the RESTORE money.
“I’m sure everybody’s twisting my ear,” he laughed.
McMahon said one of the more interesting ideas he’s heard thus far involves using the Three Mile Bridge—when the Pensacola Bay span is replaced—to build an artificial reef.
“There was a group out there wanting to use the rubble for reef building. That kind of made sense,” he said. “—a half-mile strip you can kind of drift along.”
Above all, McMahon, former head of the local chamber of commerce, said he is looking for a return on investment, the almighty ROI.
“I think any of these things needs to have a return on investment, you’ve got to have that built into it,” he said, adding that “some of that is very hard to measure.”
Beck said that the committee should also be mindful of other, non-local pots of RESTORE money—the Clean Water Act fines are divvied up according to a dizzying formula—and should be careful not to spend local dollars on projects better suited for the state or federal pots of money. He also said matching funds should be sought out whenever possible.
“It’s gonna take a little bit of time to work through this,” Beck said.
While a lot of people are looking for game-changers, Terry cautioned that some big ideas—such as suggestions to better general community fields, like education or health—might prove rather illusive.
“What we can’t afford to do is just throw the money at ‘ideas,’” the chairman said.
‘Long, Thoughtful Process’ Begins
The RESTORE committee heads into its second meeting April 8. As the first meeting served as an introductory, this meeting is the advisory board’s first real chance to get down to business.
“I think it’ll be a long, thoughtful process,” Terry said, as she embarks on what Interim County Administrator George Touart has estimated will be a multi-year journey.
While the committee’s initial meetings have been slated for the county’s administrative building, Terry said she intends to change-up locations throughout the process. The chairman is hoping the committee is able to meet in various pockets of the community, to ascertain specific needs and connect with people.
“It’s my plan that we get out and touch people,” Terry said.
Wagley said he expects the committee process will move slowly, thoughtfully.
“That’s how I’m hoping it will go, that we will just be open and take our time,” he said. “I don’t think we should be in a hurry because good decisions come from good discussions and good deliberations.”
McMahon pointed out that Escambia County is unique to most other locales involved in the RESTORE process. While county governments in Florida have been given say over sizable chunks of the expected Clean Water Act windfall, non-federal RESTORE dollars in other Gulf States are being controlled primarily at the state level. The distinction comes with some responsibility.
“If we don’t do it, everybody’s going to be looking at us and saying, ‘What’s wrong with those people? They had an opportunity and they couldn’t do it,’” McMahon said.
RESTORE ACT ADVISORY COMMITTEE
WHEN: 3 p.m. Monday, April 8
WHERE: Escambia County Central Office Complex, 3363 W. Park Place
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