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Author: Hansen Hasenberg

Bishop Wack, Diocese look to new year

The biggest hurdle of Wack’s tenure has been the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic, Wack instructed all Catholic churches in the Diocese to suspend all masses until further notice. He said decisions like that were hard to make but that he didn’t regret trying to keep people safe. Personal sacramental needs like confession were handled at an individual church level.

While there were no public masses for a time, the use of online streaming increased amongst churches in the Diocese, who still had to continue the mission of the church. Many churches, and church leaders, had to learn how to set up live streaming for Mass.

“Some priests went from having flip phones to being like movie producers,” Wack said jokingly.
Wack believes having to livestream services may have been a net positive as they were able to reach even more people than they had before, including those outside of their parishioners.

The Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee has been led by Bishop Bill Wack for the past five years. In his time as Bishop, the Church has had to deal with several challenges, most notably COVID-19.

Part of the pandemic was social distancing and avoiding crowds, especially in indoor spaces. Wack said this forced the church to go out into the community more and evangelize, something the church had been neglecting in the Bishop’s opinion.

“For centuries, we have been content with just opening the doors and letting people come into our church,” Wack said. “What we realized is they aren’t coming in, we have to go get them. We have to go teach them about the faith and invite to our churches again.”

On top of overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, the Diocese has been renovating and expanding a few cathedrals and schools across the Panhandle.

In a Facebook live earlier this year, Wack said being bishop has been hard at times but rewarding.
Before becoming Bishop of the Diocese, Wack had never held the title nor the role. He had been serving as a priest for eight years in a parish in Austin, Texas, when he received a call from a papal nuncio, a representative of the Pope, that would change his life.

He was told he was being named a bishop and would be moving to Northwest Florida, a place he had never been before.

“When I came, it took me awhile to get adjusted and get settled into the role. Then we had to deal with some hurricanes and other things that happened but finally now, after about three and half years, I feel like I know what I am doing and I’ve got some ideas for growth,” Wack said. “I’m not just reacting and responding. It is time to look forward and make plans for the future.”

Part of planning for the future involves having a strategy of how to move forward. Wack said he wants to work with others in the Diocese to come up with a strategic plan for what exactly they want to do and accomplish.

Wack said one of his biggest plans is spending more time in the various parts of the Diocese. He said that once the pandemic subsided, he began to travel to different parts of the country for various Catholic events. For Wack, a new year brings the promise of new opportunities to focus on the Diocese.

“My goal is to spend more time out of the office and visiting parishes and schools,” Wack said.
Another thing Wack hopes to do is develop more ministries to serve the community. Recently, the Diocese oversaw the opening of houses for formerly incarcerated men in Tallahassee, elderly homeless men in Pensacola, and for pregnant women in Pace.

The Diocese also has expanded their use of technology in spreading the Word of God and informing people of things going on in their local churches.

In addition to livestreaming Mass, the Diocese has pursued other avenues to connect to people online.

They have a podcast called “Gaudium et Spes” and a YouTube channel where they put out content on the Catholic faith and on the work being done within the Diocese. Gaudium et Spes translates to “joy and hope” and is also the name of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from the Second Vatican Council in 1965.

Wack said he is excited to see what comes during the new year and how churches across the Panhandle serve their communities.

“Looking ahead, I am excited to just start dreaming and thinking about what else do we need, what else can we do, how can we build up the church and one another here and help our brothers and sisters in many different communities,” Wack said.

Crestview native living her Hollywood dreams

She has only been in the film industry for eight months.

For Matthews, acting wasn’t something she thought she would be doing, it’s kind of just fell in her lap.
“I never thought about acting,” Matthews said. “I was in show choir in high school, so I did have an interest in the arts.”

That interest started back in elementary school when she would do small plays. She was in choir in middle school. Then, when she went to Crestview High School, she joined show choir. She enjoyed it, but still wanted to pursue her dream of being a lawyer.

Matthews said she had wanted to be a lawyer since she was a kid.

She left Crestview when she turned 18 and went to Florida State University to study criminology and law.

She graduated from FSU in 2020 and began law school at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La.

Alyssa Matthews

While attending Southern Law, she began to have an interest in acting again.

Part of the reason she began acting there was Louisiana’s film industry. Louisiana, due to its motion picture production tax credit, has become a place where everyone from independent directors to big budget studios come to film.

According to a 2019-2020 fiscal impact report from Louisiana Entertainment, a division of Louisiana Economic Development, the industry supported 9,636 jobs and had $338,399,538 in earnings in 2020.

Matthews said there are not as many film opportunities in the Florida Panhandle as in Louisiana.

“When I moved to Louisiana, that was when I began to see how many movies they were filming down here,” Matthews said.

Although Matthews has been going to school in Baton Rouge, she first started acting in New Orleans.
“I got into acting, honestly, out of luck,” Matthews said. “I would make weekend trips down to New Orleans because there were a lot more things to do than in Baton Rouge.”

One day when she was in New Orleans, she heard about an opportunity to be an extra in a scene in a movie. She was there for two hours, met Nicolas Cage and chalked up the experience as a fun memory.

A few days later, however, she got a call.

It was a casting director, who had gotten her information from the production company making the Cage movie. They told her they wanted her to audition for an MGM movie. She said that was when it hit her she could possibly pursue a career in film and TV.

The MGM movie she auditioned for was called “Bottoms,” and she landed the role. The movie is produced by Elizabeth Banks and stars former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch among others.

Matthews said the movie is a comedy about two high schoolers who create a fight club to become popular. The movie is currently in post-production and supposed to be released sometime next year.

Her acting career has been taking off in Baton Rouge too. She filmed “National Treasure: Edge of History” there and is currently filming “The Iron Claw,” a movie about the Von Erich family of professional wrestlers. That movie stars Zac Efron as Kevin Von Erich, one of the Von Erich brothers.

“Being around people I see on TV every day, it is very surreal. It feels like a dream to me,” Matthews said. “I’ll be on set and be standing next to Zac Efron and be like ‘Wow, this is real,’ I am really standing next to this person I watched as a child.”

Matthews said she is excited about all the opportunities coming her way and said the experience has helped her get outside of her comfort zone.

While she has been bitten by the “acting bug,” Matthews isn’t ready to give up on her other dream, becoming a lawyer.

“As far as the question of do I want to pursue acting full time or law full time, I am doing both,” Matthews said. “But I want to find a good balance and maybe become an entertainment lawyer.”

She said it will give her time to act and to pursue a career in law.

For those on the lookout for Matthews while watching “National Treasure: Edge of History,” Matthews said she will be in the ninth episode of the series.

Baker moves past feisty Bozeman squad in playoff matchup

“They have very good receivers that gave us trouble the last time we played them,” Gardner said.

The last time Baker and Bozeman met, Baker left with a one-point victory. On Nov. 11, the game was less close on the scoreboard but just as hard fought on the field. Baker defeated Bozeman 33 to 14 behind a trio of running backs.

Breyshawn Baker had four carries for 71 yards and a touchdown. Colton Weekley had 10 carries for 86 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Weekley also found the endzone through the air thanks to a pass from Kayleb Wagner on a post wheel play. That touchdown came with 1.3 seconds left in the first half.

“That was a great throw by a running back,” Gardner said.

Wagner, the bellcow of Baker’s football program, came into the night looking to eclipse the 2,000 yard rushing mark for the season. He was 77 yards away before the game. With 24 carries, 174 yards rushing, and two touchdowns, he more than took care of that concern.

Gardner said Wagner not only is a great individual player, but also acts as facilitator for his teammates.

“Kayleb [Wagner] is so good, teams hone in on him, it gives other guys like Colton [Weekley] and Breyshawn [Baker] an opportunity to step up and they did,” Gardner said.

The first quarter saw the Baker Gators put score twice with Wagner and Baker each putting six on the board. Bozeman responded to Baker in the second quarter with a touchdown of their own when Bozeman’s Colton Gee caught a pass and ran the rest of the way for a touchdown.

The Gators were able to score twice in response to Bozeman to make it 26-7 at half. Baker missed a couple extra points.

While Bozeman was able to put together some lengthy drives, they were rarely able to pay them off with points. On a couple of occasions during the game, Bozeman turned the ball over in the redzone.

The couple of times Bozeman did find a way to score, Baker was not in the right position and the Bucks took advantage.

“We played great the first half, played very hard in the second half, but we also made a couple mistakes and let them score,” Gardner said.

In the second half, Bozeman pulled within 12 points. Bozeman came close to making the game even closer with a redzone visit in the fourth quarter, but they threw an interception. Baker was able to score on the ensuing drive.

Bozeman was not able to find the redzone again until there was less than a minute left in the game. At that point they were down 33-14 and were out of time to mount a comeback.

With their win over Bozeman, Baker (8-3) moves on to the next round of the playoffs where it will face undefeated Chipley (10-0).

“Chipley has some great players and coaches,” Gardner said. “It’s going to be tough; we just have to play hard and do the best we can.”

Pensacola Airport looks to expand in next few years

To deal with the increase in passengers and activity, the City of Pensacola, who oversees the airport, is looking to expand the airport by 2026, possibly sooner.

Matt Coughlin, the airport director for Pensacola International Airport, said it’s been a while since the airport has been expanded, something he and many others have been working to change. He said the last time the airport substantially expanded was in the early 2000s, when the terminal was modernized.

“Right now, we are pretty full,” Coughlin said. “We are approaching our capacity for our facilities and how they were originally designed.”

Coughlin said the past few years have seen an enormous growth in the number of passengers coming to and from Pensacola via the airport.

In 2019, the airport saw 2.2 million passengers come through PNS. Previous to 2019, the airport’s total passengers had continued to grow from 1.67 million in 2017. The onset of the pandemic in 2020 brought the passenger rate of growth to a relative halt. Despite the setback, the airport rebounded the following year, bringing in 2.3 million passengers.

Now with 2.4 million passengers for 2022, the airport is reaching the point where Coughlin says it needs to expand. Coughlin said the 2.4 million is like the population of Pensacola going through the airport every eight days.

The increased volume has led to wear and tear on the airport itself. In recent months, the airport has had to fix issues with its escalators and an elevator. Coughlin said maintenance woes have been exacerbated by supply chain issues, making it take longer to fix them.

Pensacola International Airport currently serves passengers through 12 gates, 10 of which are jet bridges and two are ground service gates. There are seven airlines that have operate at Pensacola International Airport including United, Southwest, Silver Airways, Frontier, Delta, American Airlines, and Spirit.

A new expansion would include a larger security area, and a new concourse with five additional jet bridge service gates. This will increase the airport’s capacity by 50%.

With the expansion, will come more business. At least that is what Coughlin hopes.

“This will afford us the opportunity to potentially bring in new airlines or additional routes with the current airlines we have here,” Coughlin said.

Mayor Grover Robinson agrees with Coughlin on the importance of the project.

He said they have been planning on an expansion for several years now. There was a plan to expand the parking spaces at the airport before COVID was on anyone’s radar.

“Once we saw the passenger traffic come back faster than anticipated, we said ‘hey, we might not only need to expand the parking, maybe we need to expand the terminal and other things,’” Robinson said. “We are wearing out current space with the amount of traffic and we are missing opportunities for new airlines and new routes.”

Last year, the city went to DOT to try and get some money for designing the expansion. Robinson said they have been working on the best way to approach the expansion, from a fiscal point of view, as well as setting up a reasonable timetable.

Robinson said he believes the project is five years out, while Coughlin believes they can do it in three. It will ultimately come down to when they receive funding needed for the project to move forward. The estimated cost of the expansion project is $70 million, according to Coughlin and Robinson.

“I want to do this as quickly as we can due to current capacity issues,” Coughlin said. “I hope we get it designed next year.”

To fund the project, the airport is looking at state and federal grants. Robinson said the city might look at additional ways of funding the project. One way is by issuing bonds, which would be paid back with fees the airport collects.

As Robinson is serving his final term in office, he will not be mayor when the airport is expected to be expanded. He said mayor elect D.C. Reeves has been in meetings with the airport and is on board with finding a way to do the project, which Robinson feels is necessary for the city’s future.

For Coughlin, the ultimate goal is customer satisfaction, which has an impact on the economy of Northwest Florida.

Airports are vital to economic development of the local community and can open the door to many opportunities, Coughlin says. If customers are happy with their experience flying in and out of Pensacola, whether for business or for pleasure, they are more likely to invest their time and money in Pensacola in the future.

“It’s a huge effort for the airport staff,” Coughlin said. “Its one of many projects to make the Pensacola International Airport the best place to fly in and out of.”

Gators take bite out of Stingrays on homecoming

Coming into the game, the Baker Gators (3-2) needed to reestablish the running game, their bread and butter. Lighthouse (1-3) entered the game coming off its first win of the season, an 8-7 victory over Destin.

While the Stingrays celebrated a win last week, they didn’t get the chance against Baker.

The first half was highly competitive, with Lighthouse putting together a few good drives but Baker’s defense held strong when it counted, only allowing a single touchdown on a jet sweep by Daquavious Rich. Baker’s Kayleb Wagner scored twice in the first quarter and Colton Weekley rushed for another to give Baker a 21 to 7 lead at half.

The second half was dominated by Baker, with the only miscues being a fumble and a missed extra point. 27 of Baker’s 48 points came after halftime. Everything seemed to go Baker’s way in the second half.

One play summed up the second half rather well. Lighthouse was punting out of its own endzone when the punter shanked it, causing the ball to go sideways and land in their endzone. Wagner jumped on top of it, giving Baker another touchdown.

“Defensively, last year Wagner didn’t have to play much on defense, but this year, due to some injuries, he has had to play a lot,” Gardner said. “He’s really stepped up and been a great leader for us.”

Wagner finished with 25 carries for 237 yards and four total touchdowns, three of which came on the ground.

Weekley added two touchdowns with 132 yards on the ground and Brayshawn Baker, who was named homecoming king earlier in the night, capped off the game with a score of his own.

“We have got a lot of young kids starting, but our focus is being consistent all the time,” Gardner said. “That’s what we have to do a better job of.”

Baker goes back on the road for their next game at Jay.

Rebekah Jones wins appeal, looks to Aug. 23 primary

On Aug. 5, a ruling was handed down that said Jones could no longer appear on the ballot because she was not eligible to run. Jones had allegedly not been a member of the Democratic Party for the 365 days required under Florida statute 99.021. Schiller brought forth the lawsuit after an anonymous source provided her information that showed Jones was not in compliance with the law.

Jones had identified as an independent and a Democrat at different times, ultimately registering as a Democrat for the primary. Another point of contention was that Jones had sworn that the information she provided was fully accurate when she qualified to run.

Jones was granted a motion to stay on Aug. 12 and was placed back on the ballot awaiting appeal.

On Mon., Aug. 22, the Florida Court of Appeals, First District, ruled in favor of Rebekah Jones in her appeal, reversing the prior court judgment and establishing her full legitimacy as Democratic Candidate for Florida Congressional House, District 1.

The judge’s reasoning was that the language in the statute was not explicit enough or did not impose any requirements beyond what it said. In the judgement, it states that the text “does not require proof of actual party affiliation, nor does it speak at all to disqualification of a candidate if those sworn affirmation turn out to be untrue.”

Schiller responded to the news by saying that they were “naturally disappointed with the ruling.” Despite that, Schiller said she supported the decision and will not be appealing based on timing.

“Our goal in filing this lawsuit was to reach a swift decision before the primary. Not filing or waiting to do so would have allowed the Republican nominee to leverage this information to disqualify Jones if she were to win the primary, potentially leaving NO Democrat available to challenge the Republican nominee in November,” Schiller said. “Therefore, despite today’s ruling, I still believe this was the right action to take. We very much appreciate the support that we have received from the community. While the Appellate Court did not agree today, as someone who follows election laws, I hope that voters will realize I am the only true Democrat qualified to represent our district.”

The Jones campaign sees this as not only a win for her, but for the voters.

“Rebekah’s willingness to fight against the efforts of her opponent show her willingness and ability to fight for the constituents of District 1. Her qualifications were never in doubt and the prior decision was rectified by court,” Ben Kuehne, Rebekah Jones’ campaign attorney, said. “We applaud the court for quickly deciding the issue and ensuring that the rights of the voters are protected from legal chicanery and their votes will count. Rebekah is the fighter District 1 needs and deserves.”

Rebekah Jones said in a statement that she was relieved to continue fighting for the voters and that Schiller’s “legal wranglings… did not win the day.”

“I encourage everyone who has yet to vote, please do so tomorrow at your assigned precincts,” Jones said. “Let your vote count and your voice be heard.” 

Florida supply chain issues still linger well into 2022

Florida is slightly higher than those percentages, ranking 31st. Manufacturing, construction, retail and wholesale trade are some of the harder hit industries.

In Navarre, however, supply chain issues are getting better than during the pandemic, but still remain a problem.

Southern Pipe and Supply in Navarre can attest to that.

According to Will Collier, a branch manager of two Southern Pipe and Supply stores, they have been waiting weeks, sometimes months, to have products delivered. One delivery has been delayed since last fall.

“It goes back a couple years,” Collier said. “We started to feel the ripple effects on the economy after COVID started.”

Southern operates as a middleman between manufacturers and service businesses. They are struggling to get a variety of products, including septic system related items.

“A good bit of it has straightened out, but we still have issues getting things we ordered,” Collier said. “We may have had to seek out other vendors to get products.”

The healthcare industry isn’t immune either.

According to the study, nearly 40% of small businesses in the healthcare and social assistance sector have experienced domestic supplier delays.

However, for Baptist Health Care, which employs around 4,300 staff members, there have not been as many significant issues.

According to Candy McGuyre, director of Corporate Marketing for Baptist Healthcare, whenever challenges have arisen, Baptist Health Care has successfully secured materials and equipment through identifying alternate vendor options and by planning in advance.

“Ensuring we have the materials we need has elevated the requirement on our part for thorough preparation,” McGuyre said. “In doing so, though, we have been able to maintain supply inventories to ensure we are able to provide care to our patients without interruption.”

While the supply chain has certainly been an issue to area businesses, inflation has also been a chief concern.

Advanced Auto Parts on Highway 87 knows that all too well.

Tracy Bragg, the general manager of the store in Navarre, says the cost of doing business has forced the auto parts store to raise their prices. Staffing issues haven’t helped either.

“Pre-COVID, we were fully staffed, and supply and demand were right on point,” Bragg said. “Right now, it’s more delivery issues than anything. Transportation issues and issues in hiring drivers.”

There are a few products that Bragg and her team have had trouble getting, namely motor oil and oil filters.

Local businesses have done their best to cope, whether that means selling product at a higher rate or finding different vendors to get the products they need.

Tough road ahead: Truckers feel brunt of gas prices

Just this past week, AAA announced that the national average for a gallon of regular gas was $5.004, a record high. While the soaring prices at the pump affect everybody who drives, they especially impact the trucking industry. Truckers use diesel, which is at an average of $5.765 a gallon nationally as of June 11, according to AAA.

Diesel costs more than regular gasoline due to the differences in federal excise taxes between the two. The tax on diesel is 24.3 cents per gallon, which is six cents more per gallon than the tax on gasoline. As of January 1, 2022, the average of total state taxes and fees for on-highway diesel fuel was 32.66 cents per gallon according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

According to Alix Miller, Ph.D., the president and CEO of the Florida Trucking Association, fuel is the trucking industry’s second largest expense, only behind labor.

“These recent spikes in diesel fuel prices have a real and significant impact on our industry,” Miller said. “Record-high prices have real, direct and direct implications on trucking and the consumer.”

Diesel powers trucks that deliver consumer goods, manufacturing products, agricultural products and so much more. With supply chain issues already facing Americans, the high price of diesel threatens to exacerbate the problem.

While consumers certainly feel the after-effects of diesel price increases, the trucking companies, 97% of which are small businesses, are hit even harder. Miller says that trucking companies do use fuel surcharges to alleviate some of the costs, but they only cover 60-70% of price increases.

The small trucking businesses have less negotiating power than bigger companies for things like freight contracts and purchasing fuel.

While not technically a company that has any truckers, Panhandle Trucking and Logistics in Crestview has been working in the industry since 2012. According to Leah Jarriel, co-owner of Panhandle Trucking and Logistics, her business is a truck broker. In other words, they help facilitate the transfer of goods by acting as a sort of go-between between truckers and customers who need something moved.

Panhandle Trucking and Logistics works with 20 or more regular customers and helps facilitate 250 loads a year. According to Jarriel, they deal with owner/operators and full-scale trucking companies.
Jarriel says that the gas prices impact both sides that she and her business deal with.

“It has been very volatile,” Jarriel said. “Carriers have to know what their costs will be so that they can give a quote to a customer.”

Without truckers and carriers being able to give a quote due to fluctuating prices, the truckers, the customers, and the brokers are all left in a sort of limbo.

“If I give a quote today for freight in six weeks,” Jarriel said, “how do I know what the rates are going to be then?”

Jarriel considers this whole inflation situation surrounding gas prices to be a “trickle down problem.” Gas prices go up, trucker fees go up, the quote for carrying a load goes up, and then those costs at the customer and later, consumer levels, also go up. This leaves everyone having to decide whether it is worth the cost, especially owner/operator truckers.

One of those truckers who is feeling the brunt of inflation at the pump is Paul Coleman. Along with his son, Coleman owns a trucking company called PM Coleman Hauling LLC out of Walnut Hill in Escambia County. PM Coleman Hauling LLC began in June 2021.

“Things are bad, some companies are shutting down,” Coleman said. “These prices have cut into our profit bad.”

According to Coleman, his company is an owner/operator hot shot trucking business, and they travel across the country. Hot Shot trucking, according to, is when truckers haul smaller, more time-sensitive less than truckload (LTL) loads within a specific timeframe and usually to a single customer or location.

Coleman has driven big trucks on and off for 25 years, drives to places across the Southeast, Northeast, Midwest, and out west, but he tries to avoid California because of the high gas prices.

When Coleman spoke by phone on June 10, he was in Smithfield, North Carolina on a hauling trip. He said that diesel cost nearly $6.00 there during the phone call. According to, a website that tells people gas pricing information from across the United States, diesel cost $5.69 in Smithfield on June 10.

According to Coleman, he usually needs 1200 gallons a month for his business. At $6.00 a gallon, that would amount to $7200.

With the added costs of things like food, hotel stays, and other business expenses, truckers have to adjust and haul more. Coleman says that truckers are trying to haul two to three things or more with each load to turn enough of a profit.

“Right now, if you don’t get a good load, then it isn’t worth the trip,” Coleman said. “It really hurts small businesses like us.”

Coleman also says that the trucking industry is hurting due to “team drivers.” These team drivers have “swamped” the industry in recent years, according to Coleman, and do the same loads for cheaper prices than businesses like Coleman’s. They are called “team drivers” because they have a crew who swaps out who is driving, which also saves time.

“If things don’t change, I’ll have to shut down,” Coleman said. “I honestly don’t know what to do.”

Coleman hopes that all those involved in the trucking business, from truck stops to brokers to the truckers themselves, can come together and figure out better prices for all.

“Lots of people wonder why shelves at Walmart and other stores are empty, now you know,” Coleman said. “If it keeps going this way, people are going to see their shelves a lot emptier.”

Free debate camp to be held at NWFL State College

All their events, tournaments and camps are no-cost to students, schools, or families. It started four years ago in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties and has expanded across the state ever since.
James Fishback is director and founder of Incubate Debate.

“We want to bring debate to students, but more than that, we want to boost every student’s confidence and skills in critical thinking,” Fishback said.

Fishback says the goal of Incubate Debate is to help foster the next generation of citizens, helping them build skills and confidence to learn about, discuss, and debate important issues shaping their communities and country.

During the camp, students will participate in roundtable discussions on topics of domestic and foreign policy. Students also participate in research and speaking workshops and hone their skills in rigorous practice rounds.

According to Fishback, these skills are not only helpful in a debate, but throughout these students’ lives.

“To be honest, the reason we do all this, all the skills that students develop in debate, they will need when entering college, trade school or the workforce,” Fishback said. “It makes them more competitive, no matter what field they go into.”

On the third day of the camp, Incubate Debate will be hosting a county showcase, in which students use the skills they have learned to debate their peers. Sunday, June 12 also includes an award ceremony to celebrate the students’ hard work with their parents and teachers. The showcase and award ceremony will take place from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.

In addition to the events and activities planned for the students, local leaders also participate. This camp will see Okaloosa County Commissioner Nathan Boyles speak to the students and judge their showcase.

“I am really excited to participate in this event,” Boyles said. “Public speaking is an important foundational skill for all people, not just politicians.”

The last Northwest Florida event put on by Incubate Debate was held at Laurel Hill High School. It featured State Senator Doug Broxson, Okaloosa School Board Chairman Tim Bryant, Okaloosa County Commissioner Paul Mixon, and Okaloosa County Supervisor of Elections Paul Lux. Boyles was originally going to partake in the Laurel Hill event but could not after a scheduling conflict.

Despite taking place in and featuring leaders from Okaloosa County, the camp is open to students from Escambia and Santa Rosa Counties as well.

“We want to help out as many students as we can,” Fishback said. “Especially those who aren’t always included in debate.”

Those interested in signing up should do so by June 9, but Fishback says that Incubate Debate is flexible when it comes to signups. Right now, there around 30 students already signed up for the upcoming camp. For more information, email

FDOT, partners look to build next generation of workers with Construction Career Days

This year’s Construction Career Days marks the second in person version of this event in Northwest Florida. The first year of the event was 2019.

The event brings together students with contractors, Florida Department of Transportation workers, construction and engineering firms, and other representatives from the transportation and construction industries. In all, there are around 50 government agencies, consulting firms and contractors participating.

“We want to let people know their options,” Heather Baril said, “to put them in touch directly with companies.”

Baril is Milton operations engineer for Florida Department of Transportation District three and co-chair of the Northwest Florida Construction Career Days.

She says that there are Construction Career Days like this one across the state. According to the website for Construction Career Days, there are five regions in the Sunshine State: Northwest Florida, Northeast Florida, Central Florida, South Florida and Tampa Bay.

According to the state website for Construction Career Days, the Construction Career Days began in 1999 to create a nationwide educational outreach program that would cultivate interest in high school students for a variety of skilled construction careers. Funding for the event comes from company sponsors the Federal Highway Administration and other organizations related to these job fields.

The importance of Construction Career Days, according to Heather Baril, is the fact that the state has seen tremendous growth and has significant needs in career fields like engineering, construction and surveying.

In a video promoting the 2019 event, a narrator cited the importance of the event as the state has increased in population, a 14.6% increase from the 2010 census to the 2020 census, which has only exacerbated the need for good infrastructure like roads and bridges. The increased population also means that more homes need to be built.

Events like the Surfside building collapse and the threat of climate change also show the urgent need for newer or updated infrastructure in the state.

According to a March 2021 article from WUSF Public Media, a 2018 Department of Transportation study found that a two-foot sea rise, expected by mid-century, would imperil a little more than five percent — 250-plus miles — of the state’s most high-traffic highways. These coastal highways are crucial to industries like tourism, which rakes in billions annually. According to an infographic from VISIT FLORIDA, out of state visitors in 2019 added $96.5 billion to the state’s economy.

VISIT FLORIDA, the state’s official tourism marketing and travel planning organization, says on their website that “tax revenues generated by tourism-related spending represent a primary source of state government funding that helps to build roads, support schools, pay for health care and other vital programs and preserve nature settings.”

The need for these careers in Florida notwithstanding, the event acts as opportunity for high school students to explore possible pathways in a fun and exciting way.

“The biggest highlight, I think for attendees, is that they get to operate heavy machinery and equipment,” Baril said.

As participants in the event, students go around to different activities, booths and learning labs that showcase what the different job fields do, from asphalt and paving to drainage to bridge inspection.

There are 20 different learning labs, 15 exhibits and 25 pieces of equipment that the students get hands on experience with.

The students can take a ride in a bucket truck, use a manlift and operate an excavator, just to name a few types of heavy equipment.

“That’s an exciting part, you don’t get to sit on an excavator every day,” Kathy Harris said. “It’s what sticks out in people’s memory.” Harris is the media liaison for the event.

In addition to all the exciting experiences, $20,000 worth of scholarships will be handed out to participating students. To raise money for scholarships, Construction Career Days’ organizers hold golf tournaments and sport shooting.

Students in attendance who are over 18 years old can fill out applications the day of the event. In all, the Construction Career Days gives students the opportunity to see themselves filling an important role in our state.

“This is not your typical career fair,” Baril said.

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