By DOTTY NIST
Good jobs, better access to health care, housing targeted to seniors, a skilled workforce, and a well-planned U.S. 331 corridor were all prominent on county commissioners’ list of accomplishments to target as they began a strategic planning process facilitated by Herb Marlowe of Analytica. Also highlighted by commission members was the importance of preserving and maintaining existing quality of life and natural treasures such as the beaches, coastal dune lakes, forests, paths and trails.
The first session for the strategic planning process took place on Feb. 11 at the Walton County Courthouse in DeFuniak Springs. Joining the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) for the special meeting were county staff and community members.
Marlowe led the commissioners in a discussion of the strategic priorities associated with the economy, the environment, quality of life, and governance.
Using a question format, Marlowe first asked participants for responses on how the county would change in the next five to 20 years.
District 4 Commissioner Sara Comander recalled that in visioning sessions in 2008 and 2010, community members had commented positively on Walton County’s quality of life and on the beaches, lakes, forests, paths and trails. She was hopeful of maintaining those features while creating more job opportunities and reducing economic dependence on tourism. Comander saw opportunity with promoting the creation of businesses to complement the area’s military bases and defense contractors.
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld predicted growth in connection with the county-owned Mossy Head Industrial Park and with new businesses along U.S. 331 once the highway is four-laned. District 2 Commissioner Kenneth Pridgen called for planning to begin immediately for that expanded corridor.
“I see it as lots more people coming in,” responded District 5 Commissioner Cindy Meadows. She predicted that more people would be attracted to the area as a result of cold weather in the northern states. She envisioned Walton County’s population doubling over the next 20 years, with accompanying challenges related to traffic, water supply and services needed by citizens.
Walton County Planning and Development Services Director Wayne Dyess saw a doubling of the county’s population over the next two decades as a reasonable expectation.
Dyess also said that an aging population would be a certainty over the time period. This would likely be accompanied, he commented, by land use changes to support that population, along with creation of more maintenance-free dwelling units such as patio homes and homes with features to assist those with physical handicaps or challenges. The county could attract professionals interested in working from home, Dyess added.
Marlowe’s second question was how the county would not change.
Meadows was hopeful that the coastal dune lakes would still exist, the gulf would still be turquoise, the sand white, and the farm land green.
Imfeld predicted that the northern part of the county would remain agricultural.
Marlowe asked the commissioners what they would like to accomplish with regard to economic vitality.
Imfeld again emphasized bringing businesses into the Mossy Head Industrial Park and elsewhere in the county, with an emphasis on sustainable industry, also noting that parts of the county are in need of health care services and clean water. He also called for “priming the pump” to spur the creation of “mom and pop” businesses countywide.
Comander suggested that the county work in cooperation with DeFuniak Springs’ airport to enhance economic opportunities there for the benefit of the whole county.
While agreeing with those responses, Meadows suggested a “different look” at economic development, using existing resources, taking “what we have here” and “who we are” and promoting and marketing that to businesses and business people who could potentially locate in Walton County. The county could become known as a place with a natural environment in which, tech professionals, for example, would choose as a place to live, she explained.
Meadows suggested taking advantage of the “wellness trend” of living in a healthy environment, breathing good air, and eating organic food. These, along with the bright night skies, are attributes of Walton County that can be built upon, and the county can be promoted as “a healthy place to thrive,” she asserted.
Dyess highlighted the importance of finding a balance between improvement of the economy and making sure that the environment and beaches that attract people to the county are not harmed.
“We have a lot of recreational activities here,” commented District 1 Commissioner Bill Chapman. He could foresee those being used as a tool for economic development. He envisioned expansion of residents’ access to health care in the community and growing of the health care industry.
Marlowe interjected that there is such a thing as health care tourism, in which people travel to a particular area for which a particular medical procedure is known.
Imfeld agreed on the preservation aspect emphasized by other speakers but also identified a need for enhancement of entertainment opportunities, including move theaters and bowling alleys.
Comander spoke passionately about the ongoing effort to create a “working waterfront” in the Freeport area. She noted that for some time permission had been sought to dredge Four Mile Creek, which when accomplished would allow two shipbuilding companies to reopen, creating jobs. She envisioned the creation of something along the lines of San Antonio’s River Walk, which is a waterfront public park lined with individual businesses.
Chapman looked to a future strategy for expansion of public water to replace shallow wells that have become problematic, particularly in District 1.
Comander saw tourism associated with the county’s agricultural areas as a facet to be expanded.
Meadows could see room for expansion of arts and culture as an economic development draw.
Gerry Demers, interim county administrator, looked to a new overall strategy for dealing with solid waste in the near future, one which would likely involve recycling. Demers also highlighted the need for enhancement of fire protection associated with a growing population……
Read the full story in the Feb. 14, 2013 edition of the Herald Breeze.