Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 17th 2017

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Dust off those Triumph project proposals

By Duwayne Escobedo

It was April 2010 when the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill became the largest and most devastating accident in American history.

The oil spill dumped an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil over 87 days. Oil covered nearly 25,000-square-miles of the Gulf of Mexico and coated hundreds of miles of sensitive beaches, marshes and mangroves with oil.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi helped secure $1.5 billion in economic and environmental damages to the state from BP, one of the world’s largest oil and gas companies.

And former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) then helped pass the Gulf Coast Economic Corridor Act in May 2013. The law created the Triumph Gulf Coast board to distribute the BP money to eight Florida counties: Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Wakulla.

Seven years after the oil spill, BP money meant to transform the Northwest Florida Gulf Coast economy should finally start flowing at the beginning of 2018.

The first $300 million of $1.5 billion in economic damages for the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill that coated hundreds of miles of the state’s coastline got deposited at about 11 a.m. Wednesday, June 21, said Stan Connally Jr.

The president and CEO of Gulf Power Company and one of the seven members of the Triumph Gulf Coast board expects qualified projects with major economic benefits in the eight Northwest Florida counties to begin receiving money in the first quarter of 2018.

“We hoped to deploy some dollars before the end of the year,” Connally said. “It’ll be next quarter before we see any real outflow.”

Connally said the board was unable to have any official meetings until after the state government approved releasing the BP money. Since then, he said the Triumph board has worked on developing a process to approve projects submitted for funding, set up criteria for scoring the projects and ironing out other guidelines.

The pre-application process is 1-3 pages and, if selected, parties must fill out an application that is 10-30 pages.

It’s important that the approved projects have big impacts because lawmakers from other parts of the state may want to use the 15 future $80 million payments that begin in 2019 and end in 2033.

“It may seem a little onerous,” Connally said. “Just because we got the first $300 million doesn’t mean we’ll get the next $80 or the next $80. We have to make sure we do the right things with this. Lawmakers are going to ask, ‘We gave you all of this money last year, what did you do with it?’”

Gaetz, a Triumph board member, said he hopes for matching funds to double that $1.5 billion to $3 billion. That would mean partnering with federal and state, sources, as well as private investment to pay for the transformational projects.

“This is the largest development fund in Florida history,” Gaetz said. “It can have a significant impact, especially if the $1.5 billion can be leveraged, making it $2 billion or even $3 billion.”

Gaetz said he expects the board to receive some “interesting and good” project proposals. The pre-application process recently began and a deadline was set for Nov. 15. However, the board plans to continue to receive pre-applications after that date.

“The money has been spent at least seven times over,” Gaetz said with a chuckle. “We just have to get going and fund some good projects, which I believe we will.”

The Triumph board will oversee the expenditure of 75 percent of all funds recovered from BP and each of the eight counties must receive at least 5 percent of the initial $300 million and 4 percent of the funding thereafter. This ensures each of the affected Florida counties receives some of the BP money, especially smaller counties, such as Franklin, Gulf and Wakulla. Those counties’ leaders worried that Escambia, the largest county, would suck up all the funds.

One of the big debates by the Triumph board has been how to score and weigh the flood of projects it expects to receive. It likely will be scored with letters, such as A, B, C, D to give the Triumph board members room for some subjectivity and the ability to score intangibles, Connally said.

Proposed projects should transform the region’s economy by helping it to diversify. Some target industries, include aerospace and defense; financial; water transportation or shipbuilding; artificial intelligence and IT; cybersecurity; manufacturing; and robotics.

The board will value proposals that create jobs that pay salaries above the regional average. Also, proposals that have a regional impact, instead of just a local impact, will score higher.

The Triumph board plans to hire both an economic advisor and independent advisor to help in the evaluation of the ideas that get sent to them. The board may even use a stable of evaluators, who are experts in various fields.

“We want everybody to think bigger than one set of community lines,” Connally said.

FloridaWest Chief Executive Officer Scott Luth, like many in the region, has looked forward to the Triumph process beginning.

“I feel optimistic,” he said. “This really can make all the plans and ideas become a reality. It’s critical we are able to continue to use those funds as intended to continue our growth and diversify our economy.”

Grover Robinson IV, the District 4 Escambia County Commissioner the past 12 years, echoes Luth.

“I look back and feel we are light years from where we were 12 years ago,” said Robinson, who filed to run for Pensacola mayor in 2018. “I look forward to Triumph and seeing how significant its impact will be on our economy and environment. We’ve never had the money to sit back and do transformational things.”

Connally said of all the places that Gulf Power has moved him during his 28-year career with the energy company, the Gulf Coast is the best place he and his family have ever lived.

Now, the region may improve even more?

“We got a great platform to grow on,” Connally said. “We can be even better than we are today.”

TRIUMPH GULF COAST MEETING
WHEN: 1 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 8
WHERE: Wakulla County One Stop Community Center, 318 Shadeville Highway, Crawfordville, Fla.
DETAILS: myfloridatriumph.com