By REID TUCKER
Making use of Walton County’s natural resources to build the local economy and provide a greater quality of life were the main takeaways from Commissioner Sara Comander’s final county visioning meeting of 2012.
Comander, with the County Commission’s blessing, came up with the idea two years ago to gather public input in a series of countywide brain-storming meetings to get a sense of residents’ ideas for the county’s future in terms of services, industry, infrastructure and other areas. The wealth of feedback she received in 2010 made scheduling another series of visioning meetings in 2012 a safe bet for participation from Walton County residents, Comander said. However, the three meetings, which took place in Freeport, Santa Rosa Beach and DeFuniak Springs between Aug. 9 and Aug. 16, had a bigger-picture purpose this time around.
“The whole point of these meetings was to get all parties involved,” Comander said. “I wanted to get people from the south end and the north end together to discuss their ideas like before, but this time I want to take things a step further.”
That further step was to collate the main points and recurrent themes from all previous meetings into a something resembling a “wish-list” to take before the County Commission with the aim of producing a strategic vision for the county as a whole. Like the 2010 meetings, the main suggestions from residents fell into three general categories: preserving the county’s natural resources such as the beaches in the south and the farmland in the north, with these being leveraged toward economic development and enhancing the quality of life in all areas in between. While the broad strokes of the ideas from two years ago remained more or less the same compared to those gathered by this year’s meetings, the DeFuniak Springs meeting on Aug. 16 produced some specific suggestions not heard before, Comander said.
“We have to reach a point where we get everyone on board with the idea that what’s good for the north is good for the south and vice-versa,” Comander said.
On the environmental preservation front, the idea that cropped up more than any other was cashing in on the growing trend of eco tourism, with those in attendance mentioning Morrison Springs, the E.O. Wilson Biofilia Center and agricultural tours as possible avenues for expansion. Pursuing state grants to establish bicycle trails, particularly in rural areas between north and south Walton was also suggested as a way to establish a new niche for businesses across the county. Additionally much time was spent discussing the possibilities for more research and education coordination with state universities.
Other economic development-related suggestions included improvements to infrastructure like roads, water and electric systems, Internet and mobile-phone connectivity, and encouraging partnerships between the school system and high-tech industry leaders, which Comander said Walton County needs to embrace in order to attract and retain a cutting-edge workforce. Streamlining the planning board process and using some of the money sent the county’s way as part of the BP oil spill settlement to fund the construction of “shovel-ready” sites throughout the area were also discussed as good ways to attract new businesses.
Finally, in the area of enhancing quality of life, promoting the arts with events throughout the year, new sports facilities available for training venues and for hosting large athletic events, and more open government were all major talking points. Zoos, museums, art galleries, a daily newspaper, and expanding medical services were also brought up as possible items the county should consider pursuing.
Comander said the next step moving forward from the meeting was to select a focus group composed of a “cross-section of the population” from various occupations, ages and geographic locations tasked with developing a long-term strategy for the county. After developing that plan, the focus group will present it to the County Commission and Walton County School Board. City governments, the Walton Area Chamber of Commerce, the Walton County Economic Development Alliance and the Tourist Development Council will be invited to get involved in the discussion at future workshops.
“This [meeting] just the first step, but it was a step in the right direction,” Comander said.