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Just 12 short years ago, Santa Rosa County, FL, and its neighbors along the northern Gulf Coast, suffered the worst manmade catastrophe in their collective history when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and released hundreds of millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf. Today, the county is reaping the benefits of some $33.3 million in infrastructure funding that has helped attract high-value employers with the potential to create hundreds of high-paying jobs.
How the county managed that turnaround is a study in preparation meeting opportunity, even when it happens under difficult circumstances.
Even as the environmental cleanup was underway, officials in Santa Rosa County were working on plans to mitigate possible long-term economic damage as well. Toward that end, local leaders met with their counterparts in neighboring counties, representatives from the federal and state governments, and local business owners to gauge the potential impact and to develop a strategy for moving forward.
Aware that a large financial settlement was likely, Santa Rosa County was among the original partners in the effort that helped ensure 75% of oil-spill damage payments would benefit the hardest-hit counties. In 2013, that partnership became Triumph Gulf Coast, the state-appointed, five-member board responsible for making certain that dollars dedicated to economic recovery made their way to worthwhile projects in the region.
“As we discussed ways to put the settlement money to its highest and best use, we had two overriding goals: to make sure as much of it as possible stayed in the region and to develop meaningful and effective criteria for distributing it,” said Shannon Ogletree, Santa Rosa County’s economic development director. “The Triumph board of directors deserves a lot of credit for setting up a grant process with clear funding priorities and a simple process for accessing the money.”
Infrastructure For Industry
One such funding criteria has been especially beneficial to Santa Rosa’s economic development efforts – authorizing grants for public infrastructure projects for construction, expansion, or maintenance which are shown to enhance economic recovery, diversification, and enhancement of the disproportionately affected counties.
With a longtime focus on creating purpose-built industrial parks, Santa Rosa was well-positioned to take advantage of Triumph funding to complete and initiate improvements to four of them. By working with prospective companies and leveraging other state and local funding, the County incentivized large employers to locate or expand their operations in the area.
- Leading the list is the Milton Interchange Park that earned a $15.9 million grant to upgrade its facilities, attracting a new distribution center and its associated jobs.
- Next is the first-of-its-kind Whiting Aviation Park, which received $8.5 million in Triumph funding, part of which included a package that helped lure Leonardo Helicopters and 50 new high-paying jobs to Santa Rosa County.
- The Santa Rosa Industrial Park East and the I-10 Industrial Park received $6 million and $3.5 million respectively for infrastructure improvements. In both cases, the grants were part of negotiations that ultimately closed deals with high-wage, high-value companies.
Back in April of 2010, in the midst of a terrible disaster, it would have been hard to imagine the level of success Santa Rosa County would be enjoying today. Yet, in spite of hardship, job growth in Santa Rosa County is well above the national and state averages.
How did that happen? Triumph of course is a big part of the answer, but consistently winning over and retaining big employers isn’t done with money alone. The most important advantage that Santa Rosa enjoys is the vision and commitment of its elected and appointed leaders over time.
Long before there was an oil spill, there was a strategy in place for economic growth. Long before there was any settlement money, there were plans for building out the county’s industrial parks, and long before the opportunities presented by Triumph, there was the preparation by Santa Rosa County leaders.
Some might say that’s the definition of good luck – preparation meeting opportunity. If so, then add that to the list of things being manufactured in Santa Rosa County.