Gulf County lawmakers had jumped through the required hoops to get their application for dredging dollars to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, and, for all they had been told, it looked to be in decent shape.
But when Gov. Ron DeSantis announced in early August that 18 Florida Panhandle communities would be awarded more than $58 million as part of the Rebuild Florida Hometown Revitalization Program, Gulf County’s dredging project did not make the cut.
According to Chris Gouras, a consultant hired by the county to apply the project for grant funding, the rejection came as a shock.
“We ran this project up the DEO flagpole before we applied and said ‘What are your thoughts? Do y’all think this would be something that would kind of be a good project?’ And we kind of got a thumbs up on that,” Gouras said before the Board of County Commissioners on August 24.
“Much to our surprise, we didn’t make the short list. We didn’t make the cut initially for a site visit, and ultimately, a few weeks ago when projects were announced, this was one of the projects that did not make the cut and receive funding.”
As outlined in a release from the governor’s office, the Rebuild Florida Hometown Revitalization Program, administered by the DEO, “supports the revitalization of downtown areas and commercial districts impacted by Hurricane Michael, facilitating the return and recovery of businesses, jobs and services to the area.”
While Gulf County lawmakers argue that the dredging project, which aimed to deepen the Port of Port St. Joe to create room for new customers, met many of the DEO’s requirements, reviewers from the state agency determined that the initiative did not meet the program’s overall goals.
The project’s funds were administered primarily to programs that focused on revitalizing downtown districts and local businesses. Gulf County’s project was deemed too industrial.
State Rep. Jason Shoaf told the Star last month he was attempting to have the project shifted towards another grant program. Gouras said that the county was encouraged to resubmit the project for funding in the upcoming infrastructure round, but doing so requires a significant amount of time and effort that local lawmakers are not sure is worth it.
“The way this process works, by the time we knew there was a problem was when everybody else was getting site visits, and then it was way late in the game,” said Gulf County Administrator Michael Hammond. “So then now that puts us in a quandary going forward, because we have other priorities.”
Hammond said because state feedback for the dredging project had been so positive, the county prioritized the initiative ahead of others addressing county needs. Now, Hammond and other county lawmakers must weigh whether they should give the dredging project the top priority spot for a second time.
Among other options the county commissioners will consider are initiatives designed to create a water treatment plant, to improve wastewater management in the county and to make infrastructure improvements at Costin Airport.
The Gulf County BOCC is expected to call a special meeting to weigh these options on Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 4:30 p.m.