Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday June 28th 2017

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Cities May Unite for BP Funds

By Duwayne Escobedo

The $1.5 billion pot of BP oil spill reparations is up for grabs. The first $300 million payment sits in the bank waiting for the eight westernmost Northwest Florida counties to claim.

Everyone is clamoring for the money. Everyone. Especially cities in the region from Pensacola to Crawfordville.

West Florida Regional Planning Council executive director Austin Mount, who took over the agency 18 months ago, has come up with a way he believes cities can get in on the action. The WFRPC heads the Infrastructure Committee as part of Florida’s Great Northwest strategic plan, Northwest Florida Forward, for the so-called Triumph Gulf Coast funds being disbursed over the next 15 years.

Besides Infrastructure, Florida’s Great Northwest created committees for Talent, Business Vitality, Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and Quality of Place. They are tasked to come up with projects that have the potential to transform the region’s economic landscape.

Mount has invited city leaders across Northwest Florida to attend a workshop at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, May 17 at the Destin Community Center to prioritize transportation, wastewater, environment and broadband projects.

“Let’s come together and work to put a list of projects together,” Mount said. “We will have a very good gauge of what the region’s infrastructure needs are.”

Mount said a unified approach is a way for the cities to have a voice in the Triumph process. Until now, the primary focus of the BP settlement allocations has been set at the county level with the board of commissioners of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Franklin, Gulf County and Wakulla calling the shots.

Local Control
One of the loudest critics of the Triumph process has been Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward. He recommended cities receive a percentage of the revenue based on their percentage of their counties’ populations. Under his allocation plan, Pensacola would get 17 percent of Escambia County’s share or $12.75 million annually and $63.75 million total.

In a March editorial, Hayward criticized state lawmakers for focusing on everything but “local control.”

“What is important is that cities get a seat at the table,” Hayward wrote. “Without guaranteed local control over some percentage of revenue, cities will be left waiting for scraps to fall from the table and real progress will come at a snail’s pace.”

Mount pointed out that transportation, wastewater, and environmental problems are holding the region back.

“These are business issues, too,” he said. “You can’t attract companies bringing 100, 200 or 1,000 jobs if you don’t have the infrastructure.”

Mount also said a major drawback in the region is parking.

“We see it all across the coastal region,” he said. “There is not enough land to park people coming from all across the country and all across the world.”

The city leaders also can help the West Florida Regional Planning Council develop its economic development strategy that is due at the end of the year. Mount said that strategy is important because it allows the planning council to seek other federal and state grants for significant projects that are identified.

About $8-$10 billion in transportation needs exist, but only $750 million is allocated annually, Mount said.

“We have to make tough decisions on how to get some projects done to accommodate all the future growth that’s going to happen,” he said.

Already in the pipeline for the region are two bridge projects The $398.5-million Pensacola Bay Bridge replacement project will construct a new U.S. 98 bridge across Pensacola Bay. The work began recently and is scheduled to be completed in July 2020. In Okaloosa County, the more than $200-million Brooks Bridge project from Fort Walton Beach to Okaloosa Island is set to begin in 2020.

Get the Money
There are also other interests WFRPC and city leaders must reconcile. For example, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz’s plans to push for reopening the Navarre Pass. He said that as a 7-year-old he became interested in the pass that existed for nearly three months in 1965 before Hurricane Betsy passed through and closed it in September of that year.

Gaetz wants to see $10-$20 million of Triumph funds directed to the pass that he estimates will have a $1 billion impact on the Navarre area, making it the “next great growth city in Northwest Florida.”

“Many attempts have been made to open Navarre Pass, but the difference this time is having a member of Congress focused on the pass,” Gaetz said. “There are challenges we still have to overcome.”

Like Mount, Gaetz said it’s important Northwest Florida residents reach out to state senators to make sure they pass the state House bill on Triumph Gulf Coast and “not siphon (Triumph) funds off.”

Mount said he is hoping for collaboration and cooperation among Northwest Florida county and municipal governments. But he is fully aware that the Triumph windfall is bringing out lots of self-interested groups.

“A lot of people have their hands out,” Mount said. “Keeping the money in Northwest Florida is our No. 1 priority.”