Governor Rick Scott dived headlong into the distress facing the county’s oyster industry last week, spending an hour at a resource fair in Eastpoint to meet with local officials and residents seeking help.
Scott’s visit Oct. 3 combined one-on-one talks with seafood officials about the state of the Apalachicola Bay, with a chance to talk with residents about their needs in the face of a decline of the fisheries.
Escorted by County Commissioner Pinki Jackel, Scott greeted a bevy of state, regional and local officials, including State Senator Bill Montford and Commissioner Cheryl Sanders. He discussed the industry’s needs with Eastpoint seafood dealer Bruce Millender, and then later at greater length with Shannon Hartsfield, president of the Franklin County Seafood Workers Association.
Together with Jackel, Hartsfield outlined the situation on a large map of the county and its waters, set up on the stage of the Eastpoint firehouse.
“We talked about getting some immediate assistance for relay and shelling,” said Hartsfield. “We talked about possibly closing (Bob Sikes ) cut off, temporarily, for a short term, possibly a long term, because we’re fixing to get these low winter tides and fixing to get a little bit of fresh water there and we don’t want it all going out the cut.”
He said there was discussion about getting the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to expedite review of a possible plan to dredge the Eastpoint channel, but funding from the Army Corps of Engineers remains uncertain.
“We’re not worried about the channel right now,” Hartsfield said. “We’re focusing on what’s in hand. We’re worried about this bay right now.”
He said the governor asked Jackel to send him a letter with a map about all that was talked about. “He pretty well told us that there’s nothing in his power to get us some fresh water, but he would lobby the Corps and he would support us,” Hartsfield said.
The resource fair, the second in less than a month, assisted several hundred residents. The governor announced that a National Emergency Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor will provide more than $250,000 to hire dislocated fishermen as workers to help the county with traditional recovery efforts.
During his visit, Scott toured the Department of Economic Opportunity’s (DEO) Mobile One-Stop Unit, which provides employment, reemployment and Reemployment Assistance Program services. DEO helped coordinate a food drive with state agencies to help impacted residents, and the first batch of food was delivered the day of the governor’s visit.
Farm Share provided 42,000 pounds of food, everything from donated beans, yogurt, soup, condiments to soft drinks, for more than 500 distressed families. Property Appraiser Doris Pendleton, Emergency Management Director Pam Brownell, Parks and Recreation Director Nikki Millender, and Tony Shiver, candidate for county commissioner, were among those helping to unload the tractor trailer truck into a queue of cars and trucks.
At one point Scott even pitched in, helping to load a few vehicles.
“We were thrilled that Governor Scott came and handed out Farm Share food to the individuals who were driving through getting cases of basic food for their families,” said Farm Share Founder and Chairman Patricia Robbins. “We look forward to the governor’s continued support of food for the people of Franklin County through the Farm Share program. We will be doing a weekly food distribution there until things improve for our fishermen.”
Farm Share also set aside food to be distributed later to fishermen out on their boats and unable to attend.
Scott spoke to residents about other needs as well, with the governor at one point summoning Bobby Pickels, community relations manager for Progress Energy, to talk with Catherine Shiver about her light bill.
“If there is any sign that needs to be publicized in Franklin County, it’s ‘Help,’” Shiver told Pickels.
Pickels said the company has an ongoing partnership with St. Patrick Catholic Church, and through the Progress Energy Foundation, plans to make an additional $10,000 contribution this year.
“That’s not going to solve everybody’s problem,” Pickels told Shiver. “We’re going to try as hard as we can within the structure that we have, to work with customers.”
He asked that customers in need of help contact the company before their lights are shut off, or it is much more difficult to help.
“I don’t want false hopes, sir. Please don’t give us that,” said Shiver. “Do you all have little Cliff Notes that have the different counties and the different problems they are going through at the time? Like, let’s say, New Orleans and flooding, and then Franklin county and the oystermen, do you all have little side notes that say these people are struggling?
“Because I’m sure they hear these stories when the light bills come due,” she said. “I am sure they are hearing some stories and they’re true. Some of these people don’t understand that. They’ve never had their lights cut off, and that’s the hard part.”
At the tail end of his visit, Scott, flanked by Montford, Jackel DEO Executive Director Hunting F. Deutsch and DCF Secretary David Wilkins, answered questions from the press.
“Florida is working with the Army Corps for a long-term plan to address the needs of Franklin County, while also helping to address short-term needs through worker training and food banks,” said Scott. “The Apalachicola Bay is critical to the state of Florida. It is home to the world’s best oysters and fisheries, and the hardworking residents here rely on the bay to provide for their families. State agencies and community organizations are coming together to ensure families in this area can get back on their feet quickly.
“These are individuals that don’t want a government handout, they want to be helped,” he said. “There’s not one person I talked to that said ‘I want to become dependent on government.’ They want to be able to get a job. They’re struggling right now.”
Scott conceded “the court decisions have not gone our way” in the so-called “water wars” court case. He said Corps officials told him their hands are tied by a congressional mandate.
“We’ve got to make sure we get their mandate changed,” Scott said. “It’s going to be incumbent on all of us involved to call on the Corps of Engineers to do the right thing.
“We have a great seafood industry in our state, it’s a major part of our state, just like agriculture and cattle,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that we continue to have a good commercial seafood operation in our state and a good recreational seafood operation.”
Montford underscored the gravity of the situation. “These are serious issues and one that needs to addressed immediately. It’s going to require immediate help and long-term planning, and the best way is through economic development. In the meantime, we need to provide food on the table.”
Jackel thanked the governor for his visit. “We just appreciate the governor being in Franklin County today,” she said. “We know he’s very busy and we know Franklin County matters to the governor. It’s a great shot in the arm.”