BP disaster relief funds could promote new coastal businesses

05/13/13 Janelle Irwin
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Money awarded to the five Gulf Coast states affected by the BP oil disaster will be split into five categories to be used for varying restoration efforts. But some of that money can be used for economic development too. During a meeting Monday in Pinellas Park, members of a Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council committee looked at ways to divvy up the dough once it’s handed out.

“The third pot is another 30% share and it is going to be distributed to the counties around the Gulf based on a formula and within Florida, the Gulf consortium of counties will decide how that is dealt with and they have to come up with a comprehensive plan and the state has to approve it.”

That’s the planning council’s principal planner, Suzanne Cooper. She says the process could get hairy because each county will be vying for as much of the funding as possible. Cooper said the committee is coming up with an application process for individuals, groups or businesses who think they know how to inject some more money into local economies.

“In Cortez, they harvest a lot of Mullet and the roe has always been a delicacy in Florida and then it is actually taken to New York and processed to make it more concentrated and more like caviar and then it’s shipped all over the world. They get $7 a pound for it in Cortez and they get $170 for it in New York once they’ve finished processing it. So, there’s room there for a huge industry.”

Cortez is a coastal city in Manatee County. The mullet caviar idea, as Cooper called it, is being used as a sort of model in what could be a long process. Charlie Hunsicker is the director of the Manatee County natural resource department. He said there are economic opportunities in coastal communities that aren’t being tapped into.

“Because they lack someone like a classic Donald Trump, Shark Tank kind of thing to say, ‘I can make an investment of x-million dollars to establish the infrastructure you need to take it to the next level.”

Funding is guaranteed to Gulf States through the federal RESTORE Act which was signed last year. That could be the investment businesses need to kick start new initiatives.

“The RESTORE Act is not intended to carry a business into the future, it’s not intended to make it profitable, it’s intended to get it started.”

The task at hand now is to figure out how to fairly distribute funds once they’re available. That’s where the planning council comes in. Avera Wynne is their planning director. He said whatever recommendations are made would need to be approved by a state or federal body.

“We thought that some type of analysis saying which ones gave us a bigger bang for our investment dollar or RESTORE dollar might be one way. If you were evaluating them at the state or federal level, you might be inclined to support ones that were more economically – giving you better ROIs as Charley mentioned earlier.”

There was some mention of letting larger companies into the ring to fight for funding. Planning council and Tampa City council member Mary Mulhern stomped out the idea before it could get any further discussion.

“I don’t know why you would prefer large business because we’re talking about our local economies. So, I think we should have a preference for local economies, absolutely.”

The planning council is largely focusing on economic projects even though Gulf Restoration could be looked at too. The planning council’s Cooper said the board is sticking to what they’re best at.

“Things that were directly impacted by the oil spill are able to be funded for their restoration through the national resource damage assessment process. This is to restore the Gulf from decades of degradation and problems that have occurred like the net ban, like the Apalachicola fresh water problem, things like that that have degraded our economy.”

The committee is expected to meet again on June 10 following the planning council’s regular meeting, but the date hasn’t been finalized.

This Saturday, groups from across the Bay area will gather at Treasure Island, Clearwater Beach and the St. Pete side of the Gandy Bridge as part of a national movement called “Hands Across the Sand”. It’s a demonstration where participants hold hands calling for an end to dirty energy and fuel dependence.

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