There’s a long way for the government and the local non-profit organization started by Entrepreneur Paul Hsu to go before the idea of a hub for artificial intelligence, extended reality and unmanned aerial systems become a an almost quarter of a billion dollar reality.
The project, referred to by the county’s November 16th agenda as the Fieldworx Technology Hub, already applied for funding from the organization which controls the BP Oil Spill restitution money – a Florida State Government-Owned company called Triumph Gulf Coast – in March of 2022. But, this proposal would see the County lend its governmental bona-fides to the Hsu Foundation in order to create a stronger case for the project – and help it ask for more money toward the realization of the project.
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Triumph Gulf Coast has long ensured that its applicants also put up money for the projects they request money for. “We want to be a sweetener,” then Triumph Chairman Don Gaetz said in 2018. That’s proved to be the rule for the organization – including on big projects like the Southwest Crestview Bypass. So, even though that $102 million ask is a lot of money, it’s only about 44% of the project’s total $233 million cost.
The rest of the money will go towards building out an Artificial Intelligence Center building in Fort Walton Beach, an extended reality simulation in Niceville at Vertex Aerospace and a UAS corridor between a Texas A&M research facility in the Lone Star State and a Hsu facility in Laurel Hill, Florida.
As you might have guessed, the program’s very large proposed price tag is what caught my eye – and apparently the eyes of the entire commission. That amount of money, equal to about 20% of the county’s entire budget from the year (the money wouldn’t come from the county budget initially, that’s just a comparison) meant several commissioners voiced grave concerns about moving forward in support of the project as full partners.
Triumph grants almost universally have a feature called a ‘clawback’. Basically, if certain metric-based goals aren’t met – Triumph can take (or claw) back that money from the group it granted it to. Most of the provisions of the clawback are attached to job creation.
Well, $102 million is about 20% of the county’s annual budget – it’s just a lot of money to be on the hook for.
“I will view this as spending $102 million dollars of the county’s money. That is the lens that I will view it from,” said Commissioner Nathan Boyles to the presenter, Hsu Foundation CEO Amanda Negron, “We do have an existing policy about third-party applications for Triumph applications, and this project has not come to us in that manner. And, [the project] has not met our requirements for our policy. “
Other commissioners voiced their concerns about the project having Okaloosa County attached to it formally as well. “This is challenging,” Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel said, “The thing we do so well is building roads, parks, bridges and buildings. And what you are asking us to invest in is like cryptocurrency, whereas I want to see [a] gold coin. So, this is so difficult for us. The concern we have is that we can’t get our heads around it. What concerns me is what you say to constituents about this kind of idea. It’s brilliant but [the project] may not be the right fit for the county commission. And I hate to say that,” Ketchel said.
Ultimately, the Commission settled on sending the Hsu foundation a letter from the commission stating that it wanted to continue to work together in order to decide whether or not it would be worthwhile for the taxpayers of Okaloosa County to work together on the idea. The letter will be drafted by County Attorney Lynn Hoshihara and County Administrator John Hofstad.
According to the proposal that the Okaloosa County Commissioners agreed to look further into, the project will meet aim toward the following goals:
Additionally, the project hopes to directly bring roughly 468 new jobs as a part of the program and help 6,000 people earn technological certifications in a specified amount of time.
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