Late last year, Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation received a $200,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to kick-start a project aimed at improving housing conditions in North Port St. Joe.
In February, the EPA awarded the organization a second $200,000 grant, this time aimed at bringing in job training programs to the neighborhood.
The non-profit was the only organization in the Southeast to receive both.
The implications of these combined grants for the North Port St. Joe community, representatives from the EPA say, have the potential to be significant. In a virtual meeting hosted Saturday afternoon, about three dozen involved parties gathered to hear the details.
“I am really glad to be able to help facilitate this meeting today,” said Cynthia Puerifoy, an environmental justice coordinator at the EPA, opening the meeting. “I just can’t tell you how excited I have been over the last year or so to see the progress that has been made on behalf of Port St. Joe. And I’m just really glad to see us moving forward on so many fronts.
The grants come after half a decade of discussions among involved parties, ignited by the development of the 2016 Master Plan for North Port St. Joe, a community-driven restructuring of the original 2009 document outlining the plan for the neighborhood’s redevelopment.
“So while attending the community made things that culminated in its 2016 Master Plan for North Port St. Joe, the project area coalition members who were involved knew that the cost of redeveloping its neighborhood would be considerable, and certainly beyond the means of the city’s annual budget,” said John Hendry, a consultant with the Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation.
‘From that point onward, from 2016, we began to see financial support from outside of the region. It took some time. But now we’re seeing the fruits of our efforts.”
Hendry went on to discuss the parameters of the first grant the project received from the EPA – an Environmental Justice Collaborative Problem-Solving Cooperative Agreement Program grant aimed at providing housing-focused improvements after damage from Hurricane Michael and years of Covid-related hardship.
“The collaborative problem solving grant, as its termed by the EPA is designed to understand how to best create safe, healthy and resilient housing in post hurricane Florida. To achieve this goal, the collaborators must engage in as many ways possible with the citizens of North St. Joe,” he said.
“But for the community to be truly redeveloped. Without the displacement of its current residents, this grant should be considered just the beginning.”
The second grant, which falls under Brownfields Job Training Grants program, aims to provide some protection against displacement by creating job training programs that will allow students to seek out employment opportunities in environment-related fields, with the ultimate goal of having them be involved in the redevelopment process.
Krystal Pree Hepburn, a project director for the grant, said that about 13,900 of the 18,780 total students that have completed training through the program so far have found employment in environment-related fields, making an average of $14 an hour.
“The purpose of this grant is to further environmental justice by ensuring that residents living in communities historically affected by economic disinvestment, health disparities and environmental contamination, including low income minority and tribal communities, have an opportunity to reap the benefits of revitalization and environmental cleanup,” she said.
“The Brownfields Job Training Programs recruits and trains local unemployed and underemployed residents with the skills needed to secure full time employment in the environmental field.”
Among representatives from the EPA and North Port St. Joe, several members of the city, county and state governments were present on the call, including Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett, Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners Sandy Quinn, State Sen. Loranne Ausley and a representative from the office of State Rep. Jason Shoaf.
Puerifoy said the involvement of these parties, as well as the collaborative efforts of the community and its actors, will be essential to the success of the program.
“In order to improve quality of life, there are several different elements that need to be addressed collaboratively, not by entities alone, but working together,” she said. “Communities, local governments, state, federal, public and private partnerships and nonprofit organizations – no one person, no one entity has all the answers nor all the resources to bring about change.”
In the coming months, Miles Ballogg, who has helped with an additional EPA grant application on behalf of North Port St. Joe’s redevelopment, said he is hopeful for positive news.