A regional summit in Apalachicola last summer, focusing on developing strategies to enable black communities along the Panhandle to secure monies stemming from the BP oil spill settlement, has led to what will soon be a non-profit community development corporation.
The July 29 summit at the Holy Family Senior Community Center attracted representatives from academia, government, the business sector and private citizens as a first step towards mobilizing as a single entity representing African-American interests.
Dr. Frederick Humphries, former president of Florida A & M University, was unable to be there as scheduled, but otherwise FAMU was well-represented, with Larry Robinson, an environmental studies professor, serving as moderator of the opening session.
Robinson has since been named interim president of FAMU, and while he’s still a part of the group, his role is likely to diminish somewhat in the face of these other duties.
The summit’s goals were described as being to develop strategies “to ensure African-American communities, citizens, businesses and educational institutions are equitably impacted by federal, state and private investments emanating from the BP oil spill settlement.”
Following a welcome from Apalachicola Mayor Van Johnson, an overview of the group’s fledgling mission was offered by Victor Ibeanusi, dean of FAMU’s school of the environment; Tony McCray, the managing director of an economic development organization that is a partner in an Escambia County application for BP funds: and Louis Jennings, the West Florida area director for the Florida NAACP.
The participants then heard from a trio of government representatives, including John Ettinger, director of regional compliance for the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council; Phil Coram, a program administrator for Deepwater Horizon monies for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection; and Homer Wilkes, acting associate chief for the National Resource Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The take home message from their charts and graphs was that there are millions of dollars soon to flow into the Panhandle, especially the eight Gulf Coast counties, from Escambia to Wakulla, stemming from the BP oil spill settlement, and that both government and the private sector will be the beneficiary of it.
Johnson has since been in communication with Wilkes, as he hopes to arrange for a meeting in Washington with USDA Undersecretary Robert Bonnie when the mayor travels in about two weeks to be part of an Apalachicola delegation testifying before the Supreme Court’s special master at a hearing in Portland, Maine.
In a recent letter to Wilkes, Johnson said that as mayor, he would like “to utilize the economic component of the BP Oil Spill Fine Funds to create employment opportunities, especially in the Apalachicola African-American community, which have been historically underserved during both federal and state disaster declarations.”
He wrote that he would like to “infuse capital into the City of Apalachicola’s Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), in order to revitalize the historically commercial zoned district within the local African-American community that falls within the boundary of the CRA. Tax Incremental Financing (TIF) that’s being currently collected by the local CRA will then be utilized along with the infusion from the Fine Fund to breathe economic life back into the district.
“Existing distressed buildings and blighted property within the district will be purchased and acquired by the CRA to be restored and/or constructed new into storefronts. The storefronts would then be offered for either lease or purchase to graduates from the Apalachicola Incubator/Accelerator Program, which is a recently established collaborative effort between the City of Apalachicola and the Cooperative Extension Program at Florida A&M University,” he wrote.
In an interview this week, Johnson said that breathing economic life into the black community would have a widespread benefit.
“If you increase minority participation then the whole city would benefit from that, and affect Apalachicola as a whole,” he said.
As part of a working lunch, a session on strategy development fielded ideas from panel moderated by Tallahassee attorney Ennis Jacobs. Among those who took part were Ibeanusi, HCOLA President Elinor Mount Simmons, Tallahassee attorney Harold Knowles, who is also an Apalachicola landowner, Dale Landry and Eladies Sampson, both representing the NAACP, and two participants from Pensacola, Gulf Power attorney Bentina Terry and Calvin Avant, CEO of Unity in the Family Ministry, the lead non-profit in the African-American Collaborative RESTORE Act Applicant in Escambia County.
The participants agreed to meet for a follow-up the last weekend in September in Escambia County for the Pensacola-Gulf Coast Regional Equity to Achieve Prosperity (REAP) Summit at the Pensacola Grand Hotel. McCray said about 60-70 people attended, including “all the organizations we needed to be there, the significant ones to take us to the next step.”
Among the speakers was Anika Goss-Foster, executive director of the Detroit Future City Project in Detroit Michigan, an organization that guides decision-making and investment in Detroit, encompassing partnerships, project initiatives, investments and funding opportunities.
“If we don’t have private sector relationships we can forget about it,” said McCray. “These projects have to have a ROI (return on investment) that investors can clearly see. It’ll make it easier to get government investors to come to the table.
“We don’t believe the Gulf Coast can do this on its own,” he said. “We’ve asked them (experts from Detroit) to continue to be involved, to serve on a national task force for Gulf Coast restoration.”
McCray said the Pensacola meeting was “another preliminary step for these communities getting together and coming up with an outline or a template, a blueprint rather than a plan, to come up with a regional strategy and begin to reinforce one another. To really get our community thinking progressively.”
He said the members, from eight counties stretching from Escambia to Wakulla, are reviewing the draft of articles of incorporation for a regional non-profit community development corporation, which could be formally adopted at a future meeting.
“It’s going to have to be something we can all agree on as a region,” said McCray.