Community turns out for Town Hall meeting on future of DeFuniak Springs [PREMIUM]

Story by ADRIANNE WALLINE CAMPBELL 

DeFuniak Springs (DFS) held a town hall meeting at the Community Center on October 17, 2022. This was the first of a weeklong series event by the city for Florida City Government Week. 

• Oct.18 was Open House of the New City Police Head Quarters, 11:00AM – 3:00PM, Open House of the New City Hall and Showcase the City, 4:00PM – 7:00PM, and Educational Class about Magnolia Cemetery, 5:30PM. 

• Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022 – Park Plans and Trail Talks, 5:00PM – 7:00PM at the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood, 96 Circle Drive. 

• Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022 – “Buried American History” Walking Tour Magnolia Cemetery at Dusk, 5:30PM -7:30PM. 

• DFS Mayor Bob Campbell, city council, and City Marshal James Hurley shared some of the accomplishments that have been done as well as upcoming projects. 

Mayor Campbell stated that the major hurdle hovering over the city is the approximately $60 million for the water and sewer repairs and upgrades that the Florida DEP may require. Hopefully about half will be covered by grants, but it’s still a lot of money. There’s a lot of tourists coming to our area, and it’ll look a whole lot different here. The airport will bring in a lot too. Those who fly those planes usually are businesspeople and will probably bring much needed jobs here and all of Walton county. He said we’re about 18 to 20 months away from finishing the terminal. 

Mayor Pro-Tempore and Council Member Todd Bierbaum made comments concerning the downtown area, the way it was when he was a child and how it became desolate. Main Street DeFuniak Springs has done a lot to revitalize downtown. He and his wife, Amanda, opened a shop in the old Cawthon State Bank building four years ago and they’ve seen a lot of growth since then. 

Council Member Anthony Vallee reported his thoughts as well as the TPO (Transportation Planning Organization) meetings, he is the chairman. He spoke about the mobility plans for the county. Marquis Way in Freeport is a much-needed road to be expanded. Old Landfill Road is another issue. Waste Management uses it to deliver the trash instead of U.S. 83. It is in much needed repair. 

Council Member Kevin Crystal spoke about partnerships. The sidewalks/bike path on Walton Road is one partnership as well as the farmers market; 280B is another which has recently been built and has a bike path. Also, there is the public safety agreement between the city and the county for fire service. Concerning the airport, there will be an electric airplane pilot training program. That will be between the city, the school board, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. 

Council Member Robert McKnight said that he hoped to hear the public complaining about things and speaking to the city about it, and not to be intimidated. He will coach you if necessary. The lack of a hospital and emergency room is a major issue. However, the city or county does not own the property there. McKnight said he and Todd Bierbaum will be going over the city charter and hopefully eliminate outdated ordinances. He said to complain politely, and get your neighbors together. 

Council Member Henry Ennis spoke of his history of the area. He came here in 1957 and has seen a lot of changes. Downtown closing on Thursday afternoon, and the route that U.S. 331 took back then. He said that the downtown used to be very busy and there were parking meters. He said the businesses slowly left downtown and moved away. 

City Marshal James Hurley spoke and said he was one of only 11 elected police chiefs in Florida. He said he is a sixth-generation native of Walton County, originating from Eucheeanna. He is very happy to be in the new location at 99 S 18th Street as a much-needed upgrade from the U.S. 90 location. He encouraged people to call them if they need assistance or they hear or see anything. They’re available 24 hours a day. He also asked for suggestions for making the community better. 

Several attendees spoke about concerns or issues they had. They also had encouraging words. One asked about whether a dog park is planned. Mayor Campbell suggested they get it on the agenda for the regular meetings. He said to come by the new city hall building at 1350 Baldwin Avenue. Bierbaum said he thought the City Beautification & Tree Board would be discussing this topic. 

Another person asked about whether there would be a cold weather shelter open this year. Hurley said the problem had been a lack of volunteers. Crystal sent the director of the Matrix a message asking about this. He was told that this week those needing shelter for the upcoming cold snap this week would be sent to motels, as it was forecast earlier this year it seemed. That they had a contract with Walton County Emergency Management and the city of DeFuniak Springs to use the Community Center, but that the volunteers had been deployed to aid the Hurricane Ian victims. The contingency is to place them in motels when they don’t have staff. 

Annexation was another topic. The new CHELCO building was negotiated to be in the city limits. Campbell said that there should be more marketing about this, given the benefits that comes with being a part of the city. Savings with water, sewer, and gas, home and fire insurance premiums are noticeably lower too. 

One citizen asked to clarify about whether a Publix Market was coming here. The mayor said that there had been a problem with the lease or the size of the land, not a problem with the city. He feels that within the next 12 months they’ll hear from them. He added that he feels that it may be frightening to some existing businesses but need to understand we are in a growth stage, and they should not be concerned, there will be plenty of room. He also spoke of a new housing development of 200 houses that will be going in close to LECOM and Holiday Inn Express. McKnight said not to forget about Chick-fil-a going in! Vallee spoke about planning for affordable housing. It may be planning for greater density in some areas, planning for parking, transitional housing, how to protect historic character in some of the old houses such as on U.S. 331. Some would be transitioned to commercial use. He said we need to shape the community and not to just let it grow how it will, that it wouldn’t be DeFuniak Springs anymore. 

One citizen asked about a veterans clinic. As it is, that is not part of what was planned at the Veterans Lodge, which specifically for veterans with PTSD, according to Mayor Campbell. He said they have 200 acres and could start any time. Campbell said he had been trying to sell bringing a hospital here without much success. The number of beds is a concern, they want at least 100 beds, and they do not see how the area could support that number. 

A question was asked about the status of the Chautauqua Building. McKnight responded that they have $340,000 in the bank now from donations and matching funds and the third grant. He expects that the second floor will be opened by Thanksgiving of next year. When the building is complete, it will have been done by the generosity of the city and the state and will have cost about $1.5 million for the restoration. They are waiting for the contractor to be selected and for the contractor to finish the work.