BY DON GAETZ
Northwest Florida has taken it hard in the gut from the forces of nature and the folly of man. The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill was the worst man-made maritime disaster in American history. Then, before we got our feet fully under us, Hurricane Michael hit with one of the three most powerful storms this country has ever seen.
The Trump administration, Governor DeSantis and the Legislature brought substantial help in the storm’s aftermath and they’re bringing more. But a year after Michael, communities remain broken, workers are without homes and eighteen thousand families and businesses are still being spun in circles by insurance companies not paying claims.
While we may never know the oil spill’s lasting impact on the Gulf, economists calculated the jobs lost in the thousands and economic damages in the billions. The oil spill was BP’s fault and among the claims against them was Florida’s demand to be made whole for lost revenues. A federal court awarded the state $2 billion, three-fourths of which is earmarked to diversify the coastal economies of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Frankin and Wakulla counties.
Triumph Gulf Coast, established by law to use that $1.5 billion as it is paid over 26 years, is two years old. So far Triumph has received $380 million from BP and committed $237 million to 26 projects located in all eight counties in our purview. Because we insist on sponsors and applicants bringing matching funds, Triumph’s participation has attracted another $642 million in private investment and federal, state and local money. So, still in its infancy, Triumph has already generated $879 million to rebuild and diversify coastal Northwest Florida in years ahead. Until 2033, Triumph will receive and deploy an additional $80 million annually.
Our seven member board, appointed by the Governor, Cabinet and Legislature, operates in the sunshine and serves without pay. Our overhead is less than ¾ of 1 percent of the funds we manage and award. We are audited by the Auditor General with every dollar received and spent open for public inspection.
Our mission is to put a third leg under the stool of Northwest Florida’s economy so that, God forbid, if a disaster in the Gulf or base realignment in Washington brings us to our knees again, we have resilience and resources beyond our valued military payroll and our vulnerable tourism industry.
That’s why Triumph has partnered with the world’s largest airframe service provider to create a maintenance, repair and overhaul campus for commercial airlines and air freight carriers at Pensacola International Airport. The project is bringing 5,000 high-paying jobs, $330 million in capital investment and a half billion dollars a year in positive economic impact to Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. Triumph’s share is $66 million. Private money and state, federal and local dollars are paying three fourths of the cost.
Santa Rosa’s county leaders have used an $8 million Triumph award to attract another $9 million to establish an industrial aviation park abutting Whiting Field. The impact is 300 more jobs. Santa Rosa will soon announce a $50 million industrial relocation to north Santa Rosa made feasible by Triumph’s timely commitment of $4.5 million.
In Bay County, hammered by Michael, Triumph invested $10 million, making possible a $60 million port expansion, and committed $20 million to a maritime industry complex that is attracting an additional $50 million in private and state funds. Those two projects alone will generate nearly 2,000 good paying jobs.
The number one constrictor on Okaloosa’s economy is north-south transportation. Traffic clogs prevent military personnel from getting to their bases and hurt our competitiveness in attracting more. Economists emphasize that any expansion of Eglin, Hurlburt, Duke or Special Forces missions or the contractors that support them is paralyzed by an often-jammed Highway 85. Inspired by Triumph’s interest in 2000 private sector jobs to be created, county taxpayers passed an infrastructure sales tax and state leaders have promised to bring over $100 million to help fund an 85 bypass.
Florida State University, with involvement from FAMU and UF researchers, is matching Triumph dollar for dollar to model methods of rebuilding the oyster industry in Apalachicola Bay.
But it’s not enough for Triumph and its private and public sector partners to produce thousands of new jobs if there aren’t thousands of Northwest Floridians qualified to fill them. That’s why Triumph is working with school districts and higher education institutions to reshape what is taught and how it’s taught in our schools. Triumph is already funding projects in six of our eight counties that will prepare 9,000 students to earn national industry certifications for the very jobs most needed in our region over the next decade.
As part of their high school curriculum, Franklin County students are now earning certifications in welding, nursing, emergency medical training, unidentified aerial vehicles and digital tools. In 2017 Franklin students earned 35 industry certifications. In 2018, in partnership with Triumph, they are earning 429 certifications. These certifications mean graduates are fully qualified to go to work, as determined by industry, itself. Now half of all Franklin high school students are enrolled in career-technical sources and the county’s graduation rate has increased from 51 percent to 81 percent in two years.
Wakulla and Gulf counties’ students are earning industry certifications in unmanned systems, welding, IT, HVAC and automotive repair, all funded by Triumph grants matched by local support. Using Triumph funds, Bay students have earned nearly 200 HVAC industry certifications to help meet that critical post-hurricane need.
Northwest Florida State College is matching Triumph’s $2.8 million to build “Walton Works,” a major career technical education center in DeFuniak Springs. With a $14.5 million Triumph award matched 2 to 1 by philanthropic and university funds, the University of West Florida is committed to over 3,000 students earning top-level certifications in cyber security. They have jobs in our region before they graduate.
Unlike some economic development endeavors, Triumph insists on matching funds of 2 or 3 to 1, a return on investment of an average $20 for every Triumph dollar, guaranteed jobs paying more than the average wage, and “clawbacks”—enforceable requirements that the project sponsor must meet or repay Triumph.
Above and beyond those awards, the Triumph board dedicated $15 million in immediate hurricane relief to help school districts re-open and support law enforcement and other services for residents in the Triumph counties affected by the storm. Governor DeSantis is proposing using interest earned on unspent Triumph funds to build worker housing, an excellent idea. Every dollar we award in hurricane-affected counties is part of that county’s plan for economic recovery.
These are all examples of how Triumph funds have already been deployed. For a listing of every proposal that’s been made, those we’ve acted on and our criteria and process for awards please go to www.myfloridatriumph.com.
In the years ahead, Triumph will look hard for even better ways to diversify, strengthen and transform the economy of coastal Northwest Florida. Our economy and our people have been tested, tormented and beaten up by disasters we didn’t cause and couldn’t control. Triumph Gulf Coast will earn its name if, a generation from now, we are masters of our own economic fate.
As President of the Senate, Don Gaetz authored the legislation that provided for BP payments to be made to Triumph Gulf Coast to benefit coastal Northwest Florida. After leaving the Legislature, Gaetz was named by the House of Representatives to the Triumph Board of Directors, which he chairs. He lives in Seaside.