Manatee County has opportunity to create economic engine with BP fine money

Manatee County expects to bank a major windfall soon -- anywhere from $4.8 million up to $19 million. This largess comes courtesy of steep fines imposed on BP after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig disaster in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago unleashed 200 million gallons of oil that polluted parts of five states.

Manatee County commissioners have a unique opportunity here. How shall this money be spent?

While the county's beaches escaped oil and tar balls and stayed bright and clean, several thousand businesses and individuals filed claims against BP for financial damages, collecting more than $31 million. Manatee County also lost money in the wake of the oil spill -- tax revenue -- and deserves compensation, too.

The RESTORE the Gulf Coast States Act, signed by President Obama in July, requires 80 percent of the federal penalties paid by oil industry giant BP and other companies found responsible for the oil disaster to go toward restoration of the Gulf region. The act calls for coastal restoration and flood prevention; conservation land purchases; mitigation for fish and wildlife damage; promotion of tourism and seafood; workforce development and job creation; and other projects.

The exact amount coming to Manatee County is still to be determined under a complex formula that directs the bulk of the money to the Panhandle counties that suffered major impacts and damage.

The Florida Association of Counties is hosting a meeting on Sept. 19 in Pinellas County with hopes of finalizing the distribution formula.

Again, we ask: How should commissioners spend this money?

Here's one idea: Create community assets that will yield a return on investment year in and year out, a marketable venue bound to increase tourism and boost the economy -- like a new park or preserve that would appeal to both residents and visitors alike.

Possibly a fishing pier on the Gulf side of Anna Maria Island. Or a performance pavillion at Coquina Beach for outdoor theater and concerts.

Or another artificial reef or two in our waters, already a proven money-maker. Manatee County is home to 13 such sites, scattered around Sarasota Bay, Anna Maria Sound and the Gulf of Mexico. The county reports that an average of more than 540 people a day enjoy the reefs for fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving.

Fishing guides and charter boat operators benefit handsomely from these reefs. Fishermen and divers, both residents and visitors, spend $23 million annually in the county.

Manatee's government spends some $50,000 annually for reef construction projects along with grant money from the Sarasota Bay Estuary Program and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

What about another nature preserve or additional amenities at current sites? The county is well on its way toward expanding the wildly popular Robinson Preserve, which attracts 300,000 visitors annually with plenty of places to hike, bike and kayak.

The addition of 150 acres to the preserve's 487 acres today will bring fresh opportunities for a wonderful nature experience close to Anna Maria Island and northwest Bradenton. The county is working with the nonprofit Conservation Foundation of the Gulf Coast on acquiring the land through donations.

The county bought the initial Robinson acreage a decade ago for $10 million, more than half of that offset by a grant. Today, however, Manatee lacks the funds for land preservation purposes. But with the coming infusion of BP money, the county should consider setting aside some for such purchases.

Here's another idea: Establish high-caliber cultural events on par with Realize Bradenton's strategy for downtown revitalization. The inaugural Bradenton Blues Festival in December will cap the grand opening festivities for the $6.2 million Riverwalk. With art and educational components and plenty of restaurant booths, this event should draw a regional audience.

Along those same lines, how about establishing a marque sporting event -- like a Manatee Paddling Festival with kayakers and canoeists challenged to maneuver a course on the Braden River near Jiggs Landing or through mangroves in Palma Sola Bay?

So, commissioners, create a lasting economic engine with BP's money.