Operation West Bay

Aiming HighBalancing the preservation of West Bay’s scenic shoreline and 37,000 acres with a new airport, economic activity and residential development.

By Cheryl Withrow 

The West Bay Sector Plan is the first completed, approved plan of its kind in the state of Florida. The relocation of the airport to a Greenfield site in northwestern Bay County is expected to be the first airport built in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001. The centerpiece of the West Bay development is the Panama City-Bay County International Airport’s relocation to a 4,000-acre site donated by The St. Joe Company. The West Bay Sector Plan creates conservation buffers along the rivers and creeks that feed into the bay.

Will the relocation of the Panama City-Bay County International Airport have an effect on businesses in Walton and Okaloosa counties? In a word, yes.

Whether involved in processing a multimillion-dollar government contract, providing shuttle services to area airports, or directing the day-to-day operations of a world-class resort, an informal survey indicates that proprietors believe the airport relocation will pave the way for an explosion in interest in the area, and with it an increase in business for all sectors of the economy.

Al Wenstrand, executive director for Florida’s Great Northwest, based in Destin, said he thinks the Okaloosa-Walton-Bay county areas are the hottest growth areas in Northwest Florida right now.

“The population density is great enough that we’re meeting a lot of criteria from the standpoint of new businesses looking at an area,” he said. “The growth of population is attracting a lot of attention nationally.”

Florida’s Great Northwest is a forward-thinking group of business, academic and economic development leaders from the 16 Northwest Florida counties that have joined hands to pursue ambitious regional economic growth. The group’s Web site, floridasgreatnorthwest.com, explains that combining strategic alliances with those communities, which share a common thread, makes more than sense than marketing themselves on an individual basis.

Randy Curtis, executive director of the Panama City-Bay County International Airport, said the 10-year effort to relocate the airport from a boxed-in location near the Forest Park area of Panama City proper is nearing a reality. Spring construction is a distinct possibility.

The new location, a 4,000-acre site in West Bay, a stone’s throw from the Walton-Bay county line, will have positive economic effects on many of the communities surrounding it, according to Curtis. Since the airport will be readily accessible from Walton County via State Route 20 through Freeport, look for that area to grow tremendously.

“It’s going to open up a lot of opportunities,” he said.


Activity Ahead

Agreeing with Curtis, Wenstrand sees Okaloosa, Walton and Santa Rosa counties as hotbeds for the aerospace industry and the medical devices/medical technology industries. He also expects an increase in manufacturing research activity because of the airport’s proximity to Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field, Pensacola Naval Air Station and Tyndall Air Force Base.

“We’re really talking about a lot of activity with the defense industry and defense-related industries,” Wenstrand said. “In Walton, you’re going to see quite a bit of activity, mostly in the DeFuniak Springs or Freeport areas.”

Robert Smith, executive director of the Walton County Economic Development Council, concurred.

“DeFuniak Springs and Freeport should benefit from business-related impact from the airport,” he said. “Freeport is well positioned to the new airport as an area with the infrastructure to support service of the airport, and the airport should also help accommodate new companies that need quick access to flights.

“Highway 20 through Freeport should serve as a corridor from the west to the airport,” Smith said. “DeFuniak Springs could also benefit greatly from the increased traffic along I-10 and from the north to the airport.”

Smith also is thinking about the types of businesses the area can expect to see with airport relocation.

“I could speculate that there would be companies that service the airport and distribution,” he said. “But in the regional efforts to attract more high-wage, high-tech jobs, the airport will serve as a vital tool to accommodate quick access to air flights.”

Shane Moody, president and CEO of the Destin Area Chamber of Commerce, feels that Crestview also will be affected in a positive way.

“I see this as an area that will definitely have a business-related impact,” he said. “But I also see major impact on small businesses, especially as the growth begins.”

Drawing on his experience in other markets, Moody talked specifically about how an airport played a major role in the economy.

“In Greenville, S.C., BMW built a major manufacturing facility about two miles from the airport,” he said. “The airport became an international airport because of BMW. This led to an increase in warehousing and distribution facilities, especially for BMW suppliers. That area has continued to grow, and because of the warehouse and distribution that was already there, other manufacturing developed there.”

This was a case of  “It all depends on what’s needed,” Moody said.

Moody indicated that the Emerald Coast region is a major regional economy.

“As more industry-type businesses create more jobs, the trickle-down effect on small businesses will be tremendous, from Panama City to Fort Walton Beach,” he said.


High Hopes

Dawn Moliterno, president and CEO of the Walton County Chamber of Commerce, was interviewed last year by the Northwest Florida Daily News. When asked about the effect the airport relocation would have on Walton County, she said that it would boost the economy. Today, she still feels that way.

“Absolutely,” she said. “What a positive impact to this entire region.”

When talk turned to industrial type businesses locating in the area, Moliterno had definite opinions – opinions based on familiarity with how this all works.

“It has been my experience that additional business in a cross-section of industry sectors that directly or indirectly service the airport will come into the area,” she said. “Freeport and DeFuniak Springs are well positioned to support the growth of the airport in both residential and business sectors. Walton County will see a great deal of benefit from the airport.”

Heading up economic development in Okaloosa County, Larry Sassano, president of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, provided an in-depth look at his county’s efforts and accomplishments.

Growth at the north end of Okaloosa County will continue, primarily because reasonably priced land still is available in and around Crestview, Sassano said, also pointing to its location at the crossroads of Interstate Highway 10 and State Route 85. Currently, Crestview and Crestview Industrial Airpark, adjacent to Bob Sikes Airport, have experienced tremendous growth as a result of private sector expansion. Because Okaloosa County, which owns much of the developable land in the airpark, has been a good partner in promoting positive growth in the park and has helped secure state grants, business is good.

There is no reason why that can’t continue with the relocation of the Panama City-Bay County International Airport. Sassano was optimistic about the prospects for expansion in Crestview as a byproduct of the move.

“I feel that this new international airport in Bay County will have a positive growth effect on the entire region,” he said. “Any large development of this nature will have a direct and indirect impact on the surrounding areas.”


Early Controversies

Currently, the airport is scheduled to open in 2009, barring any undue stumbling blocks.

The Federal Aviation Administration released an Environmental Impact Statement in May 2006. The statement came to the conclusion that an airport with an 8,400-foot runway in the proposed location is the FAA’s preferred alternative and will best address the area’s growth.

In September, the FAA set forth its formal approval of the plan with the completion of its long-awaited Record of Decision. This document makes the Airport Authority eligible for federal grant funds to help pay for the project, which now is estimated at $331 million, $79 million above the original cost estimates made in 2000.

The West Bay site has been attacked from many fronts. One of the first organized public outcries was in the form of a non-binding referendum, or straw ballot, in March 2004. The vote – 10,959 Bay County voters against and 9,148 in favor of the move – was quickly rejected by the Airport Authority at its first meeting following the vote.

Representatives from Walton and Okaloosa counties came to that meeting to speak in favor of relocation. They said the relocation is about expanding the tourism base to access both international and business travelers. The relocation is about transitioning from a “drive market” to the more lucrative “fly market,” they reasoned. More recently, lawsuits aimed at bringing the move to a screeching halt were filed in New York.

In November 2006, two Washington D.C.-based environmental groups, pairing up with a local pilots’ organization, filed a lawsuit to stop the airport relocation. Attorneys for the groups claimed the FAA broke federal law when it decided the West Bay location was the best environmental alternative.

Curtis, of the Panama City-Bay County International Airport, said the lawsuit was not a surprise.

“We assumed there would be some type of challenge,” he said. Curtis is confident all laws were followed during the environmental permitting process and that the relocation will move forward as scheduled.

Looking at the size of the West Bay Sector Plan, which is 78,000 acres – about the same size as Washington, D.C. – over the next 20 years, there could be an population increase in the area of 100,000 or more, Wenstrand, of Florida’s Great Northwest, said.

Air service is one of the amenities in today’s global market that is a necessity. Lack of it has been keeping the area from getting quality businesses.

“It’s going to be five to 10 years, but it’s going to start, and I don’t think it’s going to have a negative impact on any of the other airports,” Wenstrand said.

The St. Joe Company donated the land for the airport. Proposed development includes residential entities, a regional employment center, a business center, and several thousand acres dedicated to preservation.

Tourism professionals who crunch the numbers are in agreement – relocation of the Panama City-Bay County International Airport will transform tourism. Transitioning from the current drive-market focus to the more lucrative fly market will have a positive effect on the bottom line.

Addressing the drive market as opposed to the fly market, Kriss Titus, executive director of the Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council, said that “currently, the drive market here is 90 percent. I look for the long-term impact of the airport relocation to change all that.”

Titus said that the airport relocation is much like that in Fort Myers.

“There, 72 percent is now a fly market,” she said. A large portion of it is from overseas, particularly Germans and Brits.”

Titus added that it did not happen overnight in Fort Myers, and “I don’t think it will happen overnight here – certainly not on the first day – but it will happen.”

The comparison is apt and perhaps bodes well for the growth of this region. In Lee County, site of the Fort Myers facility, growing pains were being felt in the late 1960s. However, because of an FAA moratorium on airport expansion, everything was put on hold. In 1975, a site finally was set.

The estimated project cost – $31 million, by project’s end –had ballooned to more than $100 million. The money was well spent. From the time the airport opened on May 14, 1983, with the landing of the first commercial jet, until the end of the year, Southwest Florida International Airport serviced 544,636 passengers. When the books closed on 2006, those numbers had escalated to 7,643,217. The investment, you might say, was a good one.

Citing statistics that indicate tourism is the lifeblood of Walton County, Titus said there is $680 million in direct and indirect spending on tourism.

“There are 10,000 workers employed in the industry, with wages and income totaling $250 million,” she said.


Driven by Tourism

Titus also suggested that tourism fuels the local real estate market.

“Again, statistics indicate that if someone visits an area six times, on the seventh, they are ready to buy (a home),” she said.

New residents, even if they are not caught up in the frontline of a traditional tourism business, are involved in it.

“They are in a tourism-related business even if they are professionals,” Titus said. “Accountants, attorneys, architects, they all are involved. “Besides, when given a choice of a place to work and raise a family, we really do have the world’s most beautiful beaches. Where else would you want to live?”

In Okaloosa County, tourism is a significant portion of the overall economy. That being the case, Moody, the head of the Destin Chamber of Commerce, said there is no doubt tourism numbers will increase.

“Additional carriers create competition, especially if discount carriers come in. Therefore, air fares will be less expensive.” And with additional carriers come more departure cities. “That alone will increase tourists.”

Even though Okaloosa’s tourism plays a noteworthy role in the county’s economy, Sassano, of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, is quick to point out it is not the largest.

“Tourism generates about $1 billion in impact each year in our local economy, and that is a tremendous impact,” he said. “However, military/defense generates a $4 billion-plus impact on our local economy. Together, that is quite a growth impact!”

Sassano added that as regional markets grow, “each carrier and each airport in the region will find its niche markets and concentrate on supporting those markets.”

As Moody continued to discuss the far-reaching ramifications of airport relocation, he said that most air travelers accept a 50-minute drive from the airport to their location. Presently, many visitors who arrive in Destin fly in to Pensacola or Panama City.

“Plus, as business around the airport develops, more and more people from around the country will hear about and see this area, which will result in more visitors,” he said.

Longer runways plus bigger jets equals additional capacity. This equation also means carriers –and tourists – may emerge from markets not currently targeted by Okaloosa County tourism businesses. When asked if he felt these companies would actively pursue these as-yet-to-be-determined markets, Moody said he was sure that would happen.

“I think tourism-based businesses will have no choice but to target these markets,” he said. “After all, tourism-based businesses only benefit when the tourists come. New markets always offer new opportunities. And good business people love to take advantage of new opportunities.”



‘A True Business Survivor’ Okaloosa Regional Airport Earns Its Wings. 

By Cheryl Withrow 

With some 4,599 jobs depending on its existence and an overall operation that contributes close to $305 million a year to the area’s economy, it is easy to see why Okaloosa Regional Airport is a business survivor.

Okaloosa Regional Airport is part of a three-airport system that also includes Bob Sikes Airport near Crestview and Destin/Fort Walton Beach Airport. All are under the authority of the Okaloosa County Airport Administration, which is controlled by the Okaloosa County Commission.

Featuring direct service to Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Memphis and Tampa, Okaloosa Regional Airport serves close to 500,000 passengers each year. Delta, American Eagle, Continental Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Gulfstream International Airlines operate at the busy regional facility. Expect to find long- and short-term parking, restaurant and lounge services and ground transportation at the airport. The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office also provides law enforcement on a 24-hour basis.

Okaloosa’s commercial airport was first established in the 1960s. It moved to its present location in 1973, according to Jerry Sealy, current director of the Okaloosa County Airport Administration.

In 2005, Okaloosa Regional Airport was selected as the Outstanding Commercial Service Airport of the Year by the Florida Department of Transportation. In order to receive this coveted honor, the airport met or exceeded department criteria for aesthetics, safety and service.

“We are very proud of that honor,” Sealy said. He added that plans to upgrade and improve services are ongoing.

“Currently we are expanding our parking apron,” he said. “We also plan to kick out the concourse, adding an additional three to four gates.”

In addition to providing air passenger service to a large portion of Northwest Florida, Okaloosa Regional Airport’s trade area is heavily geared toward the defense-weapon-system development and test-and-evaluation mission at Eglin Air Force Base, the world’s largest military reservation. In fact, Eglin, together with Hurlburt Field, home of the Air Force Special Operations Command, is the area’s largest employer.

Tourism, too, packs quite an economic wallop. Okaloosa Regional Airport is a natural gateway to the sugar-sand beaches of the Emerald Coast. Located on State Route 85, midway between Niceville and Fort Walton Beach, the airport features a plethora of shuttles, taxis, limousines, and car rental agencies that offer immediate access to the area’s famous beaches.

Sealy addressed the issue of continued increase in people using Okaloosa Regional Airport: “We are on the bubble right now,” he said. “Right now we expect to see an upsurge in growth.”

And Sealy does not think relocation of the Panama City-Bay County International Airport will affect those numbers for quite some time.

“Until they develop a ridership, get a base ridership and draw in more carriers, I do not see it impacting us, not for a long while,” he said. “It will take about eight to 10 years for that to happen.”

Factor all these positive economic indicators together, along with the realization that no Okaloosa County general fund monies or ad valorem taxes are used in operating or improving the facility, and it is obvious that the airport is there for the long haul.

Statistics attest to the fact that Okaloosa Regional Airport is a viable part of the area’s commerce. Its continued commitment to the region, its people and its visitors make it a true business survivor.  



Cindy Meadows Talking with the Walton County Commissioner 

By Cheryl Withrow 

With a strong background in government, Cindy Meadows brought a wealth of experience to the table when she was elected to the Walton County Commission in 2004.

During her tenure as a student at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Meadows worked for the Legislature, earning her tuition in the process. Later, fortified with a bachelor’s degree in business management, she moved to Central Florida, where she worked for the Florida Senate.

Meadows continued her community-focused course of study after being accepted into the University of Florida’s Urban and Regional Planning School of Architecture. She left with a master’s degree in planning, specializing in community design.

For the next 17 years, she worked in various urban planning positions, including project management, design, community planning and government liaising.

Meadows returned to her Panhandle roots in 1997, settling in Seagrove Beach, where she founded Community Planning Associates. Her firm became immersed in planning issues, and she contributed much of her free time to various volunteer pursuits.

A three-year stint on the Walton County Planning Commission brought the area’s challenges into focus for this civic-minded woman and prompted her to run for the commission seat she now holds.

It should be noted that Meadows was the first woman elected to the Walton County Commission.

In a recent interview, Emerald Coast Magazine’s Cheryl Withrow asked her about the election and Walton County’s plans to handle the growth relocation of the Panama City-Bay County International Airport is expected to create.

What was your very first reaction when you won the District 5 spot on the Walton County Commission?

My first reaction: I can’t believe I won. There were three men, including the incumbent, and me in the Republican primary. All of them were in the race for six months. I entered one month prior to the election. I won by 168 votes. In the general election, I received more than 60 percent of the vote.

With your extensive background in planning, what is your opinion on how relocation of the airport will affect businesses in Walton County?

I think the airport relocation will bring with it unprecedented growth. Initially, it will surround the airport. Walton County will be the recipient of support businesses, shopping malls, hotels, motels and industrial development. Businesses need to be prepared for the coming opportunities.

Tourism is a major component of Walton County’s economic health. Do you expect the new airport  location, which will accommodate larger-capacity jets, to significantly increase the number of vacationers in your county?

As we transition from a drive-to market to a fly-to market, the number of visitors will increase. As an international airport, the number of visitors from European and other foreign countries will certainly increase. Once visitors are able to fly in with ease, the various tourist-development councils will start marketing all over the world.

As with the tourism industry, servicing the airport will require a large work force – a work force that, for the most part, makes at or around minimum wage. Are there any fast-track plans for establishment of affordable housing in Walton County?

We have a project in Walton County, a 400-acre tract of land that was regional-utility-owned, which was given back to the county. With that and a $5-million grant from the state, we (the Walton County Commission) have put in place the Walton County Workforce Housing Corporation, which will administer the project. It is called Wolf Creek Village, and its initial phase is 242 single-family homes on 68 of the project’s acres. The development is geared to essential-service personnel whose income is 60 to 100 percent of the average median income in the area. Although ground has not been broken, we have a conceptual master plan in place.

What do you see as Walton County’s unique challenges in relation to the airport’s relocation?

Infrastructure is the key. We need to think about widening Highways 20, 3280 and 331 and providing parks and schools, as well as cultural activities and events. We have to get ahead of land use. We have to get land-use plans in place and have it well thought out before it hits us. I think everybody needs to be prepared.