Government

Time to share your RESTORE project is here

With $58 million settlement figure finalized, time is now to submit project ideas

BP oil spill skimmers. Photo credit University of West Florida

It’s about half of what local officials hoped for, but at least now there is a number attached to the RESTORE money.

The $58,523,295.70 over 15 years that Escambia County will receive from the settlement of claims related to the BP oil spill of April 2010 is about half of what Keith Wilkins said locals had hoped for. RESTORE stands for Resources, Ecosystems Sustainability, Tourist Opportunities and Revived Economies Act.

Wilkins, the county’s director of community and environment department, said now that there is a figure to work with, “it puts us looking forward.”

And to that end, a series of public meetings is ongoing where people with ideas for projects that would be eligible for RESTORE money can get hands-on help with the application process.

“This is THE time for anybody with an idea to submit that idea for consideration for the county,” Wilkins said.

“We’re disappointed at that (settlement), because it resulted in a lot less money going to places,” WIlkins said. “Florida’s economic damages claims was $4.9 billion, and their getting $2 billion. The settlement does have to be approved by all the local governments involved, but that’s the ruling. The court had the ability to blend all that stuff together and it did.”

The portal is accesible at http://restore.myescambia.com/. It will be open for 90 days and closes on Sept. 30.

The county will use the same portal for its project ideas. Wilkins said his wish list is long.

“I’ve got a list of $1 billion in projects, but which we submit hasn’t been decided,” Wilkins said.

Likely candidates for the county’s list of RESTORE projects include stormwater treatment, which improves the water quality in the bays and should address flooding, both “huge priorities” Wilkins says.

“We’ve been working with chamber to do analysis of workforce readiness programs, something like that is likely to be submitted,” he said. “The city has some projects that are stormwater based they’d like to put in.”

Port infrastructure, beach renourishment and habitat restoration projects are also likely to make the list. Click here for a detailed look at how the RESTORE money will be spread out.

Stormwater, water quality likely focus

Bayou Chico is a real target for these projects, Wilkins said.

“It is the no. 1 impaired water body in the county,” he said.

The view from the Bayou Chico from Barrancas Avenue. Michael Spooneybarger/ Pensacola Today

The view from the Bayou Chico from Barrancas Avenue. Michael Spooneybarger/ Pensacola Today

The county earlier this year received $11 million through criminal fines for RESTORE, and most of that is going into Bayou Chico. The bayou, with its long history linked to extractive industries that flourished in the area decades ago, was at least at one time, “one of the three most contaminated water bodies in the State in Florida,” Wilkins says.

Rebuilding Bayou Chico, with the example of the Tampa Bay estuary program, is a goal of Wilkins’.

But “we don’t want to forget about Perdido Bay. We’re reaching out with Baldwin County because that’s our back door, as well as Pensacola Bay, including Big Lagoon and Santa Rosa Sound,” Wilkins said.

RESTORE is not the only pot of money that could be used toward this end, but it is a critical piece of the puzzle of the seed money needed to get more work done.

Competitive grants available at the federal and state level that can be a resource, too.

For example, the county recently won a $755,563 grant from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to put the Beach Haven neighborhood on a new stormwater and sewer system for more than 200 acres in that area of Warrington.

The DEP money will be used to leverage an additional $4 million in RESTORE funding for the project and improve water quality in Jones Creek and Bayou Chico.

The grant also supplements construction of a half-mile of elevated wooden boardwalk through Jones Swamp from Decatur Avenue to Fairfield Drive. The boardwalk is part of the Southwest Greenway and Trail System. Once complete, the Greenway will extend more than eight miles from Bayou Chico west to Perdido Bay.

Construction on the stormwater project and boardwalk is anticipated to begin in January 2016.

That kind of incremental work may seem piecemeal, but it is a common way to make progress in the effort to reclaim Bayou Chico — and the Pensacola area’s other inland water bodies.

People ‘waiting for us to fail’

Chamber seminar aims to answer BP claimsEscambia County has been engaged in a more than two-year process to build public input into the process to fund projects with money from the RESTORE Act, a law specifically passed to mandate a certain percentage of fine money paid by the oil giant for its part in the Deepwater Horizon disaster to the counties most impacted by the spill.

A local committee created a scorecard to rank projects.

Projects that hit the obvious marks in that scorecard — tourism, environment, economic development — will do well. So will those that meet other criteria, including serving historically underserved communities.

Projects that could, for example, increase the community’s broadband infrastructure, could be eligible.

“If you talk to Corry Station, people at the university, we need to increase our broadband capacity if you want to develop those industries,” Wilkins said. “The committee has the latitude to consider that.”

It has at times seemed like a tedious process, but Wilkins says it was paced that way for a reason. A reason that in no small part owes to Escambia County’s not-always-shining history of political influence.

“There are a lot of people on the sidelines waiting for us to fail,” Wilkins says. “We have some legacies we’d like to outlive. We have people like our administrator, our commissioners, the clerk of the court who are committed to making this go right and changing our reputation up here.”

Wilkins says there are weekly meetings with Circuit Clerk Pam Childers’ office to ensure oil spill funds already flowing in the area are tracked.

“If you look statewide, Escambia County has set the bar for public engagement in this process. Most other counties haven’t even held a public meeting,” Wilkins says.

Pasco County’s RESTORE committee, for example, Wilkins says, met twice, and their plan was rejected.

At a meeting in commission District 2 saw someone from the Okaloosa County committee who told Wilkins that “he wished they had done it the way we had.

“We receiving by far the most money and we have the most interested public, so (other communities) understand why we’re doing this and some may be thankful they don’t have such an engaged public.”

That level of public engagement — and scrutiny — Wilkins believes will serve Pensacola well when it comes time to passing out the funds.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” he says.