Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., the nonprofit corporation charged with distributing $1.5 billion in economic damages from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, held its inaugural meeting Tuesday. At Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort, where the event was held, the conversation could be summed up with two words: “diversify” and “collaborate.”
"My hope is that these funds will be used to diversify and deepen our economy so that we can be more and more the masters of our own economic fate," Florida state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said at the meeting’s start.
Last month, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi agreed to a $2 billion settlement with oil giant BP to compensate the state for revenue lost because of the spill.
Three quarters of that sum is destined for the eight Gulf Coast counties most affected by the spill, mostly thanks to the efforts of Gaetz. Those counties include Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla.
The money won’t begin flowing until early next year, according to board member Allan Bense. When it does, the board will be responsible for deciding where it goes and for making sure that those who receive funding actually do what they say they will.
“Every deal will be scrutinized based upon how many jobs it generates,” Bense said. “There's gonna be clawbacks. If you don't perform, you’ll have to put your money back. How will they stimulate the future economy in Florida? All these deals, all these things we look at, I would like to make it as objective as possible. When you throw in a lot of subjectivity, then you open big doors."
In the coming months, the board will develop rules and procedures to close some of those doors, but Gaetz said the oil spill made one thing clear immediately: The region’s economy is too dependent on too few industries.
"The oil spill demonstrated how fragile the economy of Northwest Florida really is,” he said. That goes for the military, as well as tourism, he added.
“When somebody in the Pentagon gets the sniffles, Northwest Florida gets a pneumonia," Gaetz said. “My idea and the idea of the legislature is to put a third leg under the stool of Florida's regional economy in our area … Whether that is mid-tech or high-tech manufacturing, whether it's medicine, whether it's cybersecurity, is less important than that we control, to some extent, our own fate.”
UWF economist Rick Harper said Triumph presents a unique opportunity.
"What Triumph does is it give us the funding to specifically target some of those businesses in areas which are both high-skill, high-wage (and) that we would like to see grow,” he said.
Harper, a former chief economic adviser to Gaetz, oversees the university’s Center for Research and Economic Opportunity, which is providing administrative support to Triumph Gulf Coast.
Bense and others stressed the need to remain vigilant -- and work together -- to ensure the bulk of the money recovered by the state stays in the Gulf Coast region.
“You can unwind statutes,” Bense said. “In January or February of next year, the state of Florida will get a check for $400 million ... Three-hundred million dollars goes into Triumph Gulf Coast. (But) they could change the statutes next year and simply say, 'No, 75 percent of the money does not go into Triumph. Forty percent goes, or 20 percent, or 15 percent.'
“That hopefully won't happen, but I think the members of the delegation and those eight counties need to make sure they're all on the same song sheet to protect and preserve those dollars for a long time."
"Success will protect Triumph Gulf Coast,” he said. “Failure and dithering away the money for boat docks and baseball fields will probably make sure that the funds will be diverted somewhere else."
Cooperation was also on the minds of many local officials. Escambia County Commissioner Wilson Robertson said he hoped the board’s efforts would result in more businesses setting up shop in his county.
“It'd be foolish to tell you otherwise,” he said after the meeting, but added, “I don't want to lose those industries because we're fighting and bickering … I don't wanna see us fighting to the point that the legislature changes it (the law) and sends it out through the entire state. Let's keep it in these eight affected counties. The way to do that is cooperate."
The five board members appointed to oversee Triumph Gulf Coast are as follows: Bense, Panama City businessman and former speaker of the Florida House, appointed by Gaetz; Stan Connally Jr., president and CEO of Gulf Power Company, appointed by Gov. Rick Scott; Pam Dana, senior strategic advisor for the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, appointed by Bondi; Okaloosa County resident Stephen Riggs IV, partner at Carr, Riggs & Ingram, appointed by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater; and Destin resident Bob Bonezzi, co-founder of Bonezzi Development Company, appointed by House Speaker Will Weatherford.
This article is part of a collaboration between WUWF and the UWF Center for Research and Economic Opportunity.