Pensacola, Florida
Saturday February 24th 2018

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Roads, Bridges and Jobs

By Rick Outzen

Escambia County Commissioner Steven Barry is tackling the roads and bridges in District 5. He realizes that citizens may be getting frustrated with delays due to the construction, and he has scheduled a town hall meeting on Jan. 22, at 5 p.m. in the Ruritan Building located at 7850 Highway 97N in Walnut Hill.

He joked with Inweekly that a friend had advised him to put “Pardon our Progress” around all the detour signs, but he realized more was needed.

“I’ve got about six roads and bridges that are currently out of commission and a number of others getting worked on, specifically the bridges,” said Barry. “It’s made for detours that are lengthy, which make for unhappy constituent bases.”

He explained that the detours have put vehicles on secondary roads that normally have light traffic, which has caused even more concerns, especially since the weather has gotten colder.

“The closures have changed the dynamic on other roads because they’re getting a lot more traffic,” said Barry.  “We did have a lot of cold weather that second week of December and ended up with some iced over dirt roads where I had bridges out.”

District 5 is the largest of the five commission districts with about two-thirds of the square miles of the county and covers the most of northern part of Escambia County from Nine Mile Road to the state line in Century.  At the town hall meeting, the commissioner plans to go through the inventory of road and bridge work that’s going on and when some of the travel inconveniences will be alleviated.

Commissioner Barry recently met with the Florida Department of Transportation to discuss a new method for replacing bridges. He explained how a prefabricated steel bridge would replace a wooden bridge on Highway 99.

“I went out to just watch how FDOT would set a prefab bridge and then weld it together, almost like a large Lego set,” he told Inweekly. “That’s going to run about half the cost of the traditional rehab and construction, and it’s an FDOT-approved process. If that goes well, hopefully, we’ll be able to implement something like that in some of these other areas.”

Taking care of the roads in District 5 is a personal mission for Barry, who grew up in the district, graduated from Tate High and played baseball for the University of West Florida. He plans to live in the district after leaving office.

He said, “That’s one of the reasons why I think local government is such a unique and special opportunity. You do have the opportunity to help the community that you care about and that you interact with.”

Barry realizes that his time on the commission is limited. He said, “Our seasons in these seats end at some point in time. Hopefully, given our ages, we’ve got many years in the community after service. I’m going to see some of the people that I interact with now. I’m going to see them at the ballpark, at Publix, or interact with them at PTA things when our little girl starts to school.”

Barry added, “I’ve been really pleased with the amount of progress that we’ve made towards the paving of dirt roads in District 5. We have knocked out about 25 miles over the last four years. That is a lot of progress; it still leaves a lot to go.”

Economic Development
When asked about what are some other issues facing the commission in 2018, Barry said he felt the board needs to discuss economic development and its incentive programs. The topics came up earlier this month when the commission voted on an Economic Development Ad Valorem Tax Exemption (E-date) and other incentives for a prospective new employer.

On Jan. 4, the commission passed, 4-1, a resolution of intent offering an incentive package to “Project Fisher,” an out-of-state manufacturer who committed to create 35 new jobs, purchase about 5.3 acres at the Central Commerce Park north of Cantonment for $100,000, and build a new $7 million, 70,000-square-foot facility to house its operations.

The long negative vote was by Commissioner Doug Underhill, who objected to granting the incentives without identifying the name of the company to the public. He also doubted the average salaries of the 35 jobs would be $50,000 annually. Underhill has long opposed business incentives and last year tried unsuccessfully to defund FloridaWest Economic Development Alliance, the region’s economic development organization.

“It’s not a large project, so even if both offers (E-date and incentives) are accepted,” Barry said of Project Fisher, “financially the county can cash flow the offers without a lot of jumping through hoops.”

Though the project only involved 35 jobs, he is concerned about what happens when more jobs are created and larger incentives are requested, now that the state has less money to put toward such projects.

“We’ve had a lot of leverage with the county money towards incentives coming in from Tallahassee,” Barry explained. “If we put a thousand dollars on a job, we’ve been able to leverage it with three, four, five thousand dollars from the state. Those funds do not appear to be there in the future, or at least not in the near future.”

He would like to see a joint meeting between the commission, FloridaWest and First Place Partners, a local private-sector group designed to support economic development. The commissioner would like to see it held at Navy Federal Credit Union, Gulf Power or any place “where we can all be eye level and just talk in a real open forum.”

He said, “In that setting, I would be hoping to get some feedback from some experts and people that are in those fields of what’s really important.”

Barry wants the meeting to discuss not just economic development but also how to pay for incentives in an environment where state funds might not be available. The current Escambia County Economic Development Incentive Program can offer up to $5,000 for each job created. Project Fisher was offered $3,000 per job. Though the Jan. 4 discussions took up a lot of time, he felt it was an excellent forum to bring up the need for a community conversation on how to fund future incentives.

“I didn’t want to start the hard line on E-dates with a relatively small project in District 5,” he said of the Jan. 4 vote. “Let’s do this and then sit down to figure out how we would do it.

Barry felt comfortable about Project Fisher because the company was investing $7 million into the deal. He said, “They are putting their capital at risk here.”

He pointed out that two of the county’s largest employers, Navy Federal and International Paper, have E-dates. Barry said. “If you look at the make-up of our E-dates, for the most part, the companies are the partners that are successful and are keeping the county running.”