It has been years since North Port St. Joe community officials first contacted the Environmental Protection Agency seeking assistance with the neighborhood’s cleanup, assessment and redevelopment.
Letters were sent, meetings were held, and an increasing number of stakeholders threw their hats into the ring – including city, state and federal agencies.
On Monday, more than three dozen involved persons gathered in the Washington High School gymnasium to celebrate the culmination of those efforts – $850,000 in grant funding that aims to address environmental concerns and initiate economic revitalization in the area.
The funding comes through a series of three Environmental Protection Agency grants, which were awarded to the Pioneer Bay Community Development Corporation to help jump start initiatives community members say have been long needed.
“This is a tremendous opportunity and day for us to continue our goals and objectives for environmental justice and a commitment to the community and the areas which we serve,” said Daniel Blackman, a regional administrator from the EPA who addressed those gathered.
“We are beyond committed to the transformation of communities like this – not just communities and organizations and institutions that have been able to transform and be in place, but communities that have been left out of the conversation. And I am reminded every day in my capacity that communities like this must be at the table, not just in the room.”
Pioneer Bay, a non-profit working towards North Port St. Joe’s redevelopment goals, received the first of the three grants, a $200,000 community problem solving grant in late 2021. It will be used to kick start a project aimed at improving unsafe housing conditions in the community.
Just three months later, they received the second grant in the amount of $199,790, this time to be used to implement programs that will train local students for environmental job fields.
The third grant, which was announced earlier this month, provides nearly half a million dollars in funding that will be used to conduct 16 phase one environmental site assessments, followed by eight phase two assessments, and the creation of eight cleanup plans.
North Port St. Joe is the only community to receive all three grants.
According to Blackman, the EPA has chosen to invest money and efforts into the North Port St. Joe community so that the work done here can be used as a blueprint for other communities throughout the region.
“There are a lot of areas we could have gone to, and there are a lot of communities we could have helped,” he told those gathered in the gym.
“(EPA) Region Four houses eight states in the South, and we have over 69 historically Black colleges, we have a tremendous amount of legacy pollution communities, we have a lot of rural areas that depend on agriculture, so this day means a tremendous amount to us because we get to actually do the work.”
The grants aim to tackle issues related to damages from Hurricane Micahel, but also problems that predated the storm, originating from the lasting effects of the neighborhood’s proximity to the former St. Joe Paper Mill and the Arizona Chemical Plant.
“We decided after there was a decision made to put a wood chipping plant out on the old mill site that enough was enough,” said North Port St. Joe resident Dannie Bolden, who wrote the initial letter to the EPA.
“The community had been surrounded by a paper mill at one time and a chemical plant at one time, so we decided that we’re not going to allow another entity to go there without there being some assessment done.”
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.”
And complications are still present, residents say.
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 given these environmental factors.
As Chester Davis, North Port St. Joe community leader, led the gathered officials on a tour of the neighborhood, he pointed out houses that were slowly sinking into their foundations – becoming increasingly crooked and mangled with time.
Residents in the area suspect that the materials used to fill in the swampland where the houses were built were beginning to decay.
“The ground by the house actually feels different,” Davis said, walking around a property on Avenue B. “It’s softer.”
The community hopes to begin tackling these issues as soon as money from the grants arrives, which Port St. Joe Mayor Rex Buzzett said is expected to be over the summer.
“Any time one section of our city improves, it improves our whole city. That’s what I’m especially excited about,” the mayor said.
“It shows us that working together as city, state and federal agencies, we can get a lot of things done. And as we show progress from our work, things can be like a wildfire. Once we see that progress, it’ll spread tremendously.”