When millions of gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico in the country’s worst environmental disaster, Northwest Florida was devastated. It was an overwhelming punch to the gut for the people and economy of our region.
Now, seven years later, that heartbreak can be replaced by opportunity. It’s up to us to work together, as a unified region, to make sure it becomes a reality.
A $300 million payment from BP, a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, is a first step to help Northwest Florida recover and rebuild stronger than ever. We are all grateful that Florida’s legislative leaders have reaffirmed their commitment to steer the promised funds to our region this year – but we also know that nothing is truly done until the ink is dry.
There is much work ahead to secure these initial funds for Northwest Florida and the remaining $1.2 billion in the future, and to guarantee that decisions related to how the money is allocated are made by Northwest Floridians. We all believe that Northwest Florida is most successful when it has the authority to determine its own economic future.
Northwest Florida economic development advocates have long known that the entire region benefits most from working together – one region, one voice – to attract more jobs, training and business opportunities. Whether it’s launching a job-training program at a local college, winning a federal grant or drawing an entire industry to the area, those unified efforts create positive impacts that ripple across all of Florida.
The anchors of the Northwest Florida economy historically have been tourism and the military, but this new money will help our region build beyond our traditional economic engines to create a more diverse economy and job base. Tens of thousands of area residents will see their lives, and their communities, transformed.
Florida’s Great Northwest, the economic development organization representing the entire region, has worked with more than 860 of the region’s business, government and community leaders to develop a regional strategy that identifies the most promising opportunities for transformative economic growth in the region. Our hope is that the regional strategy will serve as the framework for prioritizing projects and allocating resources across the region.
Our wonderful corner of Florida is blessed with so many natural jewels, from our incomparable beaches and emerald-green water to spectacular rivers and forests. Add the hard-working spirit of our residents and the incredible talent and technology associated with our many military installations and private sector businesses, and you have a recipe for economic vitality and prosperity.
The BP money gives us the means to diversify and develop hubs of business and industry; train a modern workforce that will attract companies with higher wages and stable jobs; establish a state-of-the-art economic infrastructure that connects communities throughout our region; encourage innovative ideas to become reality; and build stronger communities.
Northwest Florida’s state lawmakers are working together on this, recognizing the importance of ensuring that this money goes to critical short-term and long-term efforts. Together, our region will use the funds as the impetus to create new and wide-ranging opportunities – ones that will make Northwest Florida appealing to a whole new generation of creative, talented and hard-working citizens.
Where tar balls once blotted our sugar-white beaches, wiping out jobs and our economy, we now have the opportunity to help boost education and training, business competitiveness, infrastructure, innovation and placemaking strategies that will benefit everyone.
We’re all in this together. Unified, we can ensure a much brighter picture for Northwest Florida.
Bryan Parker is Economic Development Representative for PowerSouth Energy, where he directs the company’s economic and community development initiatives in Northwest Florida. He is a member of the Executive Board of Florida’s Great Northwest and serves as chairman of the organization’s Advocacy Committee.