2012 Preview

What’s Happening on the Emerald CoastMilitary jets, baseball parks, boutique hotels and more will make 2012 a banner yearBy Zandra Wolfgram

Despite a lagging economy and an unrelenting onslaught of man-made and natural disasters in the 2000s, millions of dollars are being pumped into new development projects and expansions from Pensacola to Rosemary Beach, giving proof positive that the Emerald Coast is as resilient as ever.

As we settle into a new decade, airport and roadway expansions, along with new hotels, amphitheaters, parks and cinemas are rolling out the red carpet to locals and guests anxious to live, work and play in what Frommer’s Travel Guide ranks among the “Top 12 Destinations to Visit in the World.”

On the national scene, the next 12 months will be marked by a U.S. presidential election, the summer Olympics in London and the 100th anniversary of U.S. Marine Corps Aviation. So, what’s ahead for Emerald Coasters in 2012? Plenty.

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F-35 Fever

The 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force base is now home to four F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters (JSF). These fifth generation fighters will be used for JSF maintenance training until all certifications are complete.
According to Gen. Edward Rice, commander of air education and training command, eventually 100 pilots and 2,200 maintenance crew members will be trained each year. The Academic Training Center (ACT) at Eglin Air Force Base will train U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and ally pilots and maintainers of the F-35s Lightning II.

Before they can take flight, officials say pilots will have to log 200 hours of academics and ace 14 simulators, ground procedures and six test flights.

Community business leaders could not be more thrilled with the addition to our military might. Bruce Craul, chief operating officer for Legendary, says, “When you pour 5,000 people into an economy in less than 12 months that’s huge.” Craul is referring both to the 7th Special Forces Group from Fort Bragg, N.C., and the 33rd Fighter Wing bringing new military families to our area. “For our economy it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he says.

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This Terminal is Taking Off

“It’s huge!” said Tracy Stage, projects manager for Okaloosa County airports, describing the impact Vision Airlines at Northwest Florida Regional Airport (NWFRA) will have on the economy. He is overseeing a $5.25-million, 5,500-square-foot terminal expansion that will prepare the airport for the increased traffic.

Vision Airline’s expansion represents the largest of any airline in the U.S. in a decade, said Michael Stenson, business development manager for NWFRA, adding that Northwest Florida State College projects the economic impact to the area at $300 million annually.

The airport’s terminal expansion includes two new boarding gates at the south end of the terminal concourse, two more jet bridges, stairwells and other support areas. The improvement allows the airport to process an additional 800 passengers daily.

Greg Donovan, airports director for Okaloosa County, says $22 million in infrastructure is underway at Crestview’s Bob Sikes Airport and an additional $12 million in improvements is being invested to rebuild the 1960s-era taxiways, aprons, roads and parking lots. Donovan says Emerald Coast Aviation is finishing the design of a new terminal building at Bob Sikes Airport, with construction beginning in early 2012.

“When we’re finished, any size aircraft in the world will be able to land here,” Donovan says. “This is huge for jobs and landing big names in the aerospace contract business who will now be able to call our area home.

“This is positive for our community and while the seasonality of Vision’s latest schedule is less than what we wanted, overall our commercial growth is outstanding,” Donovan says.

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The Wide Open Road

The $25.6-million construction project, which began in August 2009 at the State Route (SR) 85/123 interchange, means improved traffic flow … eventually. The plan includes constructing a new flyover ramp to connect SR 85 northbound to SR 123. Eventually SR 85 will be widened to six lanes between General Bond Boulevard to the entrance of the Northwest Florida Regional Airport, and roadway access to the airport is being improved.

Economists estimate that approximately 1,300 jobs will be either created or sustained by the construction efforts. The project is scheduled for completion in 2012.

Soon, State Road 87 will widen from two to four lanes near the southern edge of Eglin Air Force Base in Navarre. Once complete, two more phases are planned for what is reported to be a $57-million project.

Both of these roadway projects are being funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, also known as the stimulus bill.

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Sitting Pretty on 30ASitting Pretty on 30A 

Seaside is celebrating its third decade with a few new changes. Guests to the renowned New Urbanism community will notice a new Seaside Amphitheater Stage/Piazza. Designed by celebrated architect Leon Krier, the 4,600-square-foot stage is made of natural-cut coral from the Florida Keys.

The project is part of a final phase of the amphitheater area that will include the Krier Tower, a monument that is named for and designed by the early Seaside contributor. In January 2010, the post office was moved closer to Scenic Highway 30A to where the tower will one day stand.

The stage/piazza cost about $500,000 and is a gift from Seaside founders Robert and Daryl Davis to the community.

Plans for an outdoor pavilion in Rosemary Beach are also underway. Designed by DAG Architects Inc. of Destin, the upgraded venue is geared toward the town’s popular events and performances, and officials hope it will increase opportunities for additional events. 

“We’ve always had the need here. We also have a lot of inquiries for events in search of a venue,” said Jim Bagby, town manager for Rosemary Beach.

The town has retained the Shiland Creative Group to conduct a feasibility study to be sure the pavilion meets all of the needs of the homeowners, merchants and visitors. Bagby says the final cost is estimated to be between $1.5 and $2.5 million and construction will be complete in early 2012.

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A New View Point

On the heels of the Hilton Sandestin Beach Golf Resort & Spa’s $6.5-million renovation in 2011, several new hotel projects are on the horizon.

Hotel Viridian in Seagrove Beach — A $32-million four-story boutique hotel will feature 20 guest suites as well as a private residence club, rooftop swimming pool, spa, retail space and underground parking. The hotel’s signature restaurant, V Seagrove, is already a 30A hot spot.

The Inn at Rosemary Beach — This $20-million development includes a 53-room boutique hotel with Gulf views, also known as Hotel Saba, a 100-seat restaurant, a rooftop bar and pool area, a banquet room and underground parking. At press time, Square Mile Capital was narrowing potential buyers down to five. Rosemary Beach officials hope that the new owners will complete the project and open the hotel’s doors in 2012 or soon thereafter.   

Airport and 12th in Pensacola — This $24-million project by Sandspur Development, LLC includes a 127-room Hyatt Place hotel and a mix of retail and office space. The hotel, which will be managed by Innisfree Hotels, will be connected directly to the airport terminal. The project, now underway, will be completed in March of 2013.

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The Zoo is Going Wild

The Gulf Breeze Zoo is going ape in 2012.

Originally opened in 1984, the 50-acre zoo, located on Highway 98 in Gulf Breeze, fell on tough economic times and closed its doors in August 2009. Now under the new ownership of Eric Mogensen, the zoo has a new entrance, overhauled its safari train and added several new exhibits.

In 2011 alone, it opened an aviary, a squirrel monkey exhibit, welcomed a white rhinoceros and added a native bird exhibit.

According to zoo manager Kate Wanko, there will be plenty of new faces to see in 2012. And first on the list is smiling staff members. Wanko said the zoo plans to improve its guest experience by making it more welcoming, adding more shaded areas and misting stations and redoing its concession area. Even the Safari Line Limited train ride will debut a new script and encounter new animals on the tour. “Our new plans will make us even more family friendly,” Wanko says.

Though Wanko could not confirm exactly which new animal exhibits would be added to the ranks of the 600 the zoo cares for currently, she said zoo goers can certainly expect to see plenty of new farm animals such as goats, sheep, pigs and bunnies. Off the farm, Wanko expects baby zebra, antelope, gazelle, golden-headed tamarin lion and even baby toucans will likely make appearances.

What birth is this “zoo mom” most excited about? “It sounds funny, but we’re very proud of our hairy armadillos. There are not a lot of facilities that have figured out how to make them happy enough to mate, and we have.”

And there will be one extra special birthday in 2012. Rwando, a Western Lowland gorilla, will turn 25 in 2012. And if Babuka, her 19 year-old gorilla boyfriend is game, we may hear the pitter patter of little gorilla hands and feet next year.

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Too Cool for School

Thanks to Senate Bill 2120, computer geeks are becoming really cool at school. In response to state law that asks Florida schools to use at least 50 percent of their textbooks funds toward electronic or digital copies of instructional materials (such as textbooks) by 2015, Okaloosa County schools have launched six pilot programs to test various handheld devices.

According to Eric Mitchell, technology specialist for the Okaloosa County schools, the pilot programs range from providing cell phones and iPads to students at Fort Walton Beach High School to hooking up fifth graders at Walker Elementary in Crestview with Netbooks. Teachers are instructed to use the devices 60 percent of the day. Mitchell says the devices are intended to be the primary classroom resource. “They are used to access information online, learning apps, or simply to read, type or write assignments,” he says.

For some students, Mitchell says, the future is already here. “The iPad is the new backpack,” he contends. But he concedes that the obvious difference is price. With most schools not equipped with wireless capabilities, Mitchell says the school system is researching replacement costs and the viability of students bringing their own devices to school. A survey of 3,602 students indicated that 67 percent had a laptop or Netbook they could bring to class.

The pilot is an effort to achieve “total digital ciriculum” in five years. “It’s mind blowing when you consider all of the possibilities. Digital textbooks have the potential to make us a paperless district,” Mitchell says.

Is there an app for “my dog ate my homework?”

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Are you REDy for some baseball?

The City of Pensacola has approved a $52-million plan to construct Maritime Park, the premier waterfront mixed-use development on the Gulf Coast. This will include a new, 6,000-seat stadium that will be home for the Double-A Affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds, as well as a host to concerts, football and soccer games. Construction is supposed to be completed in January 2012.

The Pensacola Blue Wahoos begin the season on April 5 with a five game home stand against the Montgomery Biscuits (Tampa Bay Rays) at Maritime Park. Tickets will start at $5.

“This is a new and exciting family-friendly environment that offers wonderful entertainment and great food,” says Pensacola Blue Wahoos executive vice president Jonathan Griffith.

The Pensacola Blue Wahoos are scheduled to play 140 regular-season contests in 152 days between April 5 and Sept. 3. The Blue Wahoos are slated to finish the 2012 regular season at home against the Tennessee Smokies (Chicago Cubs).

According to pensacolabaseball.com, the Southern League of Professional Baseball Clubs is one of the oldest and most respected leagues within professional sports with roots dating back to 1885.
Batter up!

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The Silver Screen Graces Grand Boulevard

“Who among us doesn’t have a great memorable story about going to the movies?” asks Stacey Brady, director of marketing and public relations for Grand Boulevard at Sandestin. “Movies are among the most vivid milestone markers in modern society. They also provide a common reference point within popular culture and just plain old fun entertainment and escapism. Do you remember walking out of the theatre after ‘Silence of the Lambs’ or ‘Pulp Fiction’ and going, ‘What did I just see?’”

By popular demand, the “silver screen” is coming to Miramar Beach in “grand” style. Grand Boulevard, in partnership with Carmike Cinemas, Inc., plans to roll out the red carpet on the cinema during the summer next year.
The new Carmike theater, named the Montecito 10, will feature ten screens with total seating for 1,800 and will be highlighted by a state-of-the-art “BIGD” auditorium. Dinner and a movie will take a whole new meaning at the Ovation Club. This “VIP” area will offer a more intimate cinematic experience with lush leather seating, swing around tables, a wall-to-wall screen and premium food and beverages.

The complex will also be available to the community for broadcasting major sporting events, concerts and other special viewings. Additionally, the theater will serve as a venue for non-movie events, such as live performances, presentations and church services.

“Along with providing a boost to the local economy, the theater will be a significant attraction for both the local residents as well as the visitors to our area,” Brady says.

Editor's Note: Ann McQueen contributed to this story.