Greg Vaday, of the U.S. Department of Commerce and its Economic Development Administration, was one of several federal representatives who came to Marianna Thursday and took part in “Advancing Apalachee,” an afternoon-long workshop on the issues of housing, agricultural diversification and workforce development in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael.
The gathering was primarily hosted by the Apalachee Regional Planning Council, a governmental entity that provides technical assistance to area counties.
Vaday’s office funds two ARPC positions, a disaster resiliency coordinator and an economic development coordinator.
Chipola College Dean of Workforce and Economic Development Darwin Gilmore opened the meeting, speaking in his welcome of the school’s highly regarded record of student retention, as well as its graduation rate and the frequency of students going on to take jobs with good starting wages.
ARPC’s Executive Director Chris Rietow said several guests toured Chipola before the meeting started at 11:30 a.m., and that they were impressed by its advanced training programs. He also said ARPC is hoping to move forward with a grant to upgrade some of the school’s facilities.
Rietow said his group builds partnerships between local and federal governments as well as state entities.
“We have a lot of rural communities that don’t have what they need to stay competitive,” he said. “EDA called and said we’d like to roll out a new concept workshop in your area. This is our fifth such meeting since March. This one, more than any of the others, will be different,” he said at the start of the gathering. “We’ve brought together economic developers to drill down to opportunities and real issues for this region. We pulled in speakers to talk about the opportunities. We’re looking at ag diversification, workforce and housing. We realize housing isn’t typically an EDA issue, but realize if we don’t fix this, the other two won't matter.”
And much of the meeting was focused on housing.
CareerSource Chipola’s Kenny Griffin spoke at length on the issue and the need for quick action to help the community solve that problem as well as the losses suffered by tree growers and row crop farmers. He spoke of people still living in tents, now more than nine months after the storm. He spoke of tree farmers who had counted on their trees to fund the children’s college educations, or their retirement, or their next year of row crop production.
His talk was filled with vivid descriptions of the storm’s devastation, and it drew applause.
Another subject addressed at length by another panel member was the opportunity for local farmers to consider diversity in their operations . One potential new crop under heavy research and considered of great potential now is hemp, of the type virtually absent of THC, the “euphoria” producing aspect of the plant. Research is ongoing into the benefits of growing the plant for use in many industrial applications.
The meeting included many other topics as well.
EDA’s team members that day assured local stakeholders that the federal government is trying to provide resources “in a collaborative way” that encourages a regional approach to problem-solving.