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Friday June 23rd 2017

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Buzz: Without a Net


RESTORE Committee Gets Rolling
By Jeremy Morrison

We dont know when. We dont 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.

Its an awesome group of people, said Bentina Terry, a vice president at Gulf Power Company, and the city of Pensacolas 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 groups 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 Escambias 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 expressedat opposite ends of the spectrumby 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 were just gonna throw projects up against the wall with no expectation of what we want to achieve weve 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.

Its 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.

Youve got a lot of money, you cant 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 communitys 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. Im 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 dont do it right, its a missed opportunity.

Twisting My Ear

During the RESTORE committees initial meetingwhat Terry described as mostly a data dumpmembers 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 sufferedenvironmentally, economicallyfrom 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: Were working without a net right now.

At this point, Williams told them, were really dealing with air, because we dont know what those penalties are.

Whatever Escambias share of the RESTORE money amounts to, there will be countless ways to spend it.

I can tell you, if its $150 million, or if its $300 million, weve 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 hasnt 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 Pensacolas representative on the committee, Terry said she will be looking toward the citys 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.

Ive got some wonderful ideas, she said. Navy Federal, with all the jobs theyre creating, and maybe an I-10 connection, theres just lots of ideas.

McMahon said he has been approached by people with ideas not specific projects, but ideasabout how to use the RESTORE money.

Im sure everybodys twisting my ear, he laughed.

McMahon said one of the more interesting ideas hes heard thus far involves using the Three Mile Bridgewhen the Pensacola Bay span is replacedto 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, youve 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 moneythe Clean Water Act fines are divvied up according to a dizzying formulaand 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.

Its 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 ideassuch as suggestions to better general community fields, like education or healthmight prove rather illusive.

What we cant 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 boards first real chance to get down to business.

I think itll 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.
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While the committees initial meetings have been slated for the countys 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.

Its my plan that we get out and touch people, Terry said.

Wagley said he expects the committee process will move slowly, thoughtfully.

Thats how Im hoping it will go, that we will just be open and take our time, he said. I dont 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 dont do it, everybodys going to be looking at us and saying, Whats wrong with those people? They had an opportunity and they couldnt 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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Buzzing on the Blog

District 2 Heats Up
A number of contenders are eyeing the late-Rep. Clay Fords seat in the Florida House. While local attorney Frank White has taken his name out of the hat, other prospective candidates are throwing theirs in. Possible names on the special-election ballot could include Ed Gray, III, former Gulf Breeze mayor, Mike Hill, president of the Northwest Florida Tea Party and Jack Nobles, former Pensacola City Councilman. Current Pensacola City Councilman Larry B. Johnson, a Democrat, is also considering a run. Another possibility is George Scarborough, who lost this seat to Ford in a 2007 special election. Last week, Scarborough made the rounds in Tallahassee with his brother, Morning Joe co-host and former U.S. congressman Joe Scarborough.

Wu-ing the YMCA
The YMCA has walked away. But the city apparently still wants to play. After procedural questions and a series of marathon meetings focused on a proposed lease for parcel 8 at the Community Maritime Park began to wear thin, the Yand major-funder Quint Studerdecided to call it quits. The Pensacola City Council has now requested an explanation on how property at the park is to be dealt with, and also appointed Council President P.C. Wu to approach the Y and attempt to woo them back to the negotiating table.

Snorkeling on the Key
After recently receiving approval from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Army Corps of Engineers, Escambia County plans to construct a snorkeling reef off of Perdido Key this spring. The reef will consist of prefabricated concrete structures jetted in to the sea floor. It will be located about 500 feet south of the public access area at Sandy Key Drive. Funded by Local Option Sales Tax money, the reef will stretch 280 linear feet. Water depths along the reef will range from nine to 16 feet.

Negative Outlook
Standard & Poors Ratings Services has revised the outlook on Pensacola International Airport revenue bonds to negative from stable. The outlook revision is based on the services assessment of below-average liquidity and debt service coverage, a high debt burden, and fluctuating enplanement trends due to increased competition by nearby Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. While the outlook has been downgraded, the airport has managed to maintain a triple-B bond rating. The facilitys new director, Greg Donovan, has laid out plans to decrease expenses at the airport, while also increasing revenue.

Aviation Education
The National Flight Academy has graduated this years first group of 7th to 12th graders to complete the Ambition program. The academy, together with Workforce Miami, brought 94 Miami-area high school students to Pensacola for spring break. The students spent their break aboard the academys virtual aircraft carrier, where they were immersed in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. A graduation ceremony was held March 29 at the academys facility near the National Aviation Museum; Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) was the featured speaker. Registration for the academys 2013 sessions is now open.

On the Bus
Escambia County and Pensacola have entered into an interlocal agreement that dedicates the citys portion of a 4-cent gas tax toward funding mass transit. County commissioners passed the gas-tax in the fallintending to fully fund the Escambia Country Area Transit systembut the city administration initially explored using Pensacolas portionin the $700,000 neighborhoodto help further an economic development effort at the airport. When agreeing to the interlocal, the Pensacola City Council requested that the Escambia County Commission offer it an additional seat on the countys Mass Transit Advisory Committee.