An office space has been put together in the back right corner of the room behind the Farmacy on Avenue A.
Right now, it’s just a desk, a chair, a few places to put files and a small collection of personal belongings. But for the Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation, the office space is a new step forward in their effort to bring sustainable redevelopment to North Port St. Joe.
The desk belongs to the organization’s new executive director, Akosua Gyamfuah, who started the job last month after graduating with her masters in environmental science from Western Florida University.
Gyamfuah, who is from Ghana, became familiar with the Port St. Joe community during her time at Western Florida, conducting interviews and studies in the area for several months.
“We were doing a project on North Port St. Joe, and we did it for two semesters,” she said. “What I realized is that a lot of environmental issues are more human issues than physical science issues.”
“In my masters program, we dealt more with human communities, and I realized this is where I could be of help. I can be the liaison between scientists and everyday people.”
On Feb. 2, Pioneer Bay received a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency through a program designed to help organizations in communities designated as Brownfield sites offer job training in environment-related fields.
The grant comes after years of research into the lasting impacts of the St. Joe Company Paper Mill, which was shuttered more than two decades ago, in the neighborhoods located closest to it.
In 2002, portions of Port St. Joe were declared Brownfield sites, which the EPA defines as “real property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.”
The determination was largely due to the high concentration of paper mill chemicals in the neighborhood’s soil, which could be ingested accidentally after working outdoors or eating home-grown produce.
In 2013, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection ruled that the St. Joe Company had met cleanup obligations to remove the site from the active Brownfield sites list.
But programs like the one offered by the EPA, which have an emphasis on job training or financial assistance, are key not only to the health of North Port St. Joe, Gyamfuah said, but to make the redevelopment of the neighborhood after environmental impacts sustainable for its residents.
“I feel that we can raise the funds to redevelop this place,” she said. “But if we do not help the individuals, we will displace them, because if we redevelop the land, property values will rise.”
Cheryl Steindorf, Pioneer Bay’s vice chair, said that the organization was formed about four years ago to act as an entity that can implement the North Port St. Joe community’s redevelopment plans.
This year, the organization hopes to step up their redevelopment efforts even further, and Steindorf says Gyamfuah’s expertise will play a central role in creating a multifaceted approach to accomplishing community goals.
“I think we’re going to head towards the direction of social justice, environmental justice and economic justice,” Steindorf said. “Those are going to be the three prongs of our agency, and, as we apply for more grants, we are going to fit programs underneath each one of them.”
The organization’s existing food distribution work with the Farmacy food pantry, Gyamfuah said, will be essential to determining where the community’s greatest needs are.
This community knowledge will help the organization as they seek the funding to implement training and mentorship programs for the community, including financial trainings and a youth-focused task force that aims to bring resources into the community.
“I think that is why we are here,” she said, looking out at the Farmacy from her desk. “Even though we sell produce and deliver food, we meet community members and we talk to them… we’re able to have personal conversations with them.”
Gyamfuah and Steindorf said they hope members of the community will continue to stop by the back room office on Avenue A, whether it be to talk and catch up or to bring issues to the organization’s attention.
Pioneer Bay is seeking corporate sponsors and volunteers from the Gulf County community to help with their continued food distribution and with securing further redevelopment resources.
This story has been updated from its printed version to correct an error in the date of Port St. Joe’s Brownfield site determination.