DESTIN — With a $300 million check from BP within a governor’s signature of reaching the Panhandle, the Northwest Florida Regional Planning Commission held a workshop Wednesday to discuss ways to leverage the windfall.
Barring a veto, legal settlement dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill will begin flowing from state coffers to the nonprofit Triumph Gulf Coast corporation by July 1 and continue coming until $1.5 billion has arrived 18 years down the road.
The bill authorizing Triumph Gulf Coast went to Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday, according to state Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City. Scott has 15 days to sign it.
The funds are to be set aside for disbursement by a five-member Triumph board for regional improvement spending in eight counties disproportionately affected by the oil spill.
Planning Commissioner Austin Mount said he supports using regional councils “to address shared infrastructure needs and other economic development issues.”
Mount told the 100 or so community leaders at the meeting at the Destin Community Center that the first installment of $300 million represents “a drop in the bucket of what we need” to build a “diverse and vibrant regional economy.”
Bill Williams, a former Gulf County Commissioner who now works aS the RESTORE Act Coordinator for Walton County, urged those gathered to set aside local government differences and rivalries and work together to achieve the goals envisioned by the authors of Triumph Gulf Coast.
“If we don’t do this together, we fail. On this issue you have got to stay together. If you go with the flag Team Northwest Florida, we win,” he said.
Williams told the leaders there are other sources of BP funding that can be pulled down to use for Northwest Florida, including another $1.6 billion set aside strictly for environmental purposes.
“Our challenge is to connect the dots and come up with a strategic plan across the Panhandle,” he said.
Williams praised state Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, who was in attendance, and the rest of the Northwest Florida delegation for securing the BP funds for now and into the future. He said the way the legislation is written “gives counties and cities a lot of flexibility” even in the realm of economic development, although no money can be expended on business incentives.
“If you look at the allowable spending areas, economic development is written all in that thing,” he said.
Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles was the single representative of county government at Wednesday’s meeting.
“I thought it was important for the county to have representation,” said Boyles, who is on the Northwest Florida Regional Council board. “We need to be as tuned in as possible.”
Boyles and Fort Walton Beach City Administrator Michael Beedie, who attended the meeting with Mayor Dick Rynearson and others, were impressed to hear Williams’ discussion of a multi-tiered project for infrastructure improvements along U.S. Highway 331.
They said they realized that Okaloosa County is a step behind in planning Triumph project proposals.
Boyles said his message to fellow commissioners from the meeting will be: “We’d better get busy.”
“Obviously, there are a lot of parties interested in seeing how these dollars are spent, and if Okaloosa County wants to be at the table we need to get started planning,” he said.
“In fairness,” to Okaloosa, Boyles added, Walton County has great room for growth, whereas Okaloosa is more “mature.”
“They have untapped resources and that makes theirs a less cluttered state,” he said. “Okaloosa County is more mature, more developed, bigger and further built out, and maybe more compartmentalized with nine municipalities the school district.”
Boyles said he will also encourage county officials to think regionally where they can as projects to take to the Triumph Gulf Coast Board are considered.
Led by local chambers of commerce, stakeholders have begun meeting in Okaloosa County to bring forward projects for Triumph, Beedie said.
“I was a little surprised (to hear the Walton County presentation). It seems like they’re way ahead of the game,” Beedie said. “Okaloosa County has to come together and work together on some good projects. I think we are a little bit behind, but we’re working hard to get to a point where we’re all on the same page.”