More than 13 years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, regarded as one of the largest environmental disasters in the nation’s history, poured millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, monies are flowing into Gulf County for a diversity of projects, with the creation of a better trained workforce chief among them.
Unlike RESTORE Act money, which are federal monies targeted entirely for economic development, the monies controlled by Triumph Gulf Coast Inc., a nonprofit corporation, handle the expenditure of 75 percent of all funds recovered by the Florida attorney general for economic damages that resulted from the oil spill.
Triumph has more latitude in distributing these funds for the enhancement of the eight Northwest Florida counties – Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton, Bay, Gulf, Franklin and Wakulla – disproportionately affected by the oil spill.
“The purpose of Triumph is to diversify, so that tourism and the military (can be) replaced by steady jobs that don’t go anywhere because of an oil spill,” said Susan Skelton, executive director of Triumph.
“The Triumph board has chosen to focus on (jobs) that increase household income as opposed to the tax base. Our goal is to drive high-wage, high-skilled jobs,” she said. “Triumph funds have historically been spent to increase workforce household income.”
But, she noted in reference to the real estate boom and the pressure on workforce housing, “the negative impact of high home value affects the local bottom line as far as household income. It artificially inflates what the household income is.”
In terms of job creation, both Gulf and Franklin counties have their challenges, particularly in Franklin, which lacks the industrial infrastructure that has been present in Gulf since the growth of the port, the paper mill and associated companies.
In Gulf, Triumph staffers have had multiple meetings with representatives of the cities and county governments. “We have worked closely with Jim McKnight and Commission Chairman Sandy Quinn, who have been at the forefront of pushing for workforce development in Gulf County,” Skelton said. “You’d be surprised at how much they’ve accomplished.”
While Gulf County has focused in large part on job creation at its port, and Franklin on its airport, and on Florida State University research on how best to restore Apalachicola Bay, both counties have targeted workforce development by boosting career and technical education.
“Workforce education has done a lot in Franklin and Gulf counties,” Skelton said. “With some job creation that’s been a little more of a struggle. We haven’t always found a fit.”
One item of concern that both the government and the schools have faced has been the so-called “clawback provision,” which are stipulations in the grant agreements that Triumph retains the right to have monies returned in the event that the project’s sometimes rosy projections, known as “performance metrics,” are not achieved.
“The statute requires us to have clawback provisions, we didn’t just wake up one day and decide it was a good idea,” said Skelton. “We had to do a lot of extensions and we worked with a project to make them successful.
“Our goal is not to claw the money back. We don’t want the money back,” she said. “We want the money in the community to do what the community needs to do. We want to find ways to meet the needs of the community.”
With Oct. 31 the deadline for grant recipients to submit their third quarter reports, indications are that both districts have had steady success with their career and technical education grants, but not without hiccoughs along the way.
In Gulf County, reports showed that while there has been changes in the drone instructors at both high schools, progress has been made with the three technical education grants now in the pipeline.
In reports filed by Renee Lynn, Gulf County’s assistant superintendent for instruction, wrote that Project #180, which earmarked $250,000 for the Wewahitchka High School welding program, there have been three NCCER (National Center for Construction Education and Research) Welding 2 certifications, through Oct. 31, a first in the history of welding instruction in Gulf District Schools.
With a total current enrollment of 52 high school students. 13 Welding 1 certifications have been completed, with five expected by May.
Lynn wrote that through an outreach to middle school students by providing them an elective, 42 students participated in welding techniques in the beginning of the current school year.
A collaborative program with Eastern Shipbuilding Group and the Bay County Artificial Reef Association has enabled Wewahitchka students to deploy artificial reefs, constructed by WHS students, in local waters.
“The instructor has established contacts within area companies that employ welders to facilitate possible employment upon certification/graduation,” Lynn wrote, adding that students have taken part in field trips to nearby vocational centers to encourage advancement in the area beyond high school.
At the second annual High School Welding Competition sponsored by Lively Technical College, the Wewa team took first. The Wewahitchka High Team took first place in the overall competition with Blaize Davis taking an individual second place trophy.
For the Wewahitchka High School agriscience program, which received a $108,646 infusion from Triumph, there is enrollment of 59, with 10 certifications completed by Oct. 31, and another 25 expected by May 30.
A new instructor had to be hired for the 2023-24 school year, which led to the integration of drones into the agriculture program. The agriscience classes continue to support the fifth grade garden project at Wewahitchka Elementary, and classes are scheduled to visit the Ocheesee Creamery, Deseret Cattle Farm, Gulf American Shrimp and the UF Quincy Research Facility. An FFA chapter has been formed at WHS as well, and the program is in the planning stages of building a chicken coop.
A district-wide drone program, assisted by a $710,000 Triumph grant, got a new instructor at the beginning of the school year, to work with the 15 students in Port St. Joe, and the 10 in Wewa enrolled in the program.
During the 2022-2023 school year, seven students earned USIN00l certification at PSJHS, and four at WHS. Three students in Port St. Joe have earned USIN002 certification.
Just recently put on the table for Triumph to consider is a request from the Gulf County Schools for $1.5 million over five years to implement a digital technology certification program that would be used to pay salaries of teachers in four schools to gain certification in digital technology areas within the intermediate and middle grades, to buy hardware and software for certification requirements, a curriculum, licenses, certification exams, and other materials/supplies necessary for full implementation of digital technology programs.
The goal is within the next two years to expand the project to include more elementary grade levels and after school programs so as to have 80% of students in grades fifth through north earn at least one certificate by the year 2027.
Skelton said Triumph’s overall strategy also is to spend funds to beef up higher education and training programs in Panhandle counties that will serve the regional population.
“We look at proximity to Tyndall, the base of the future, to drive the economy,,” she said. “We anticipate that who we train might work in Gulf or Franklin or Bay County.
“There are young people who in the past would have moved away but are staying,” Skelton said. “That makes my heart feel good.”