The Big Stories

The Big StoriesDuring the 2000s, the Emerald Coast has enjoyed a huge growth spurt and endured some tough challengesSummer 2003

‘Almost Done’
As the U.S. Highway 98 construction project nears completion, residents await the opening of a new, four-lane lifeline to the Emerald Coast.

The project, launched in 2000, was estimated to cost nearly $90 million. Business owners and residents anticipated what changes would be brought by the widening project spanning 22 miles of roadway on Highway 98 from the Bay County line on the east to the existing four-lane section not far from Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort on the west. When the first leg was completed in 2003, the benefits were felt immediately by commuters, area businesses and tourists.

Twenty-five million dollars was allocated to four-lane Highway 98 from Highway 331 to Sandestin, where, as one person succinctly put it, “You couldn’t buy a left turn before the four-lane opened.”

One major motivation for the widening was to accommodate explosive growth in the Panhandle coastal region and further open the area for the lucrative tourism industry that fuels much of the Emerald Coast economy. Since the project launched, the area has seen the expansion of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, the relocation of St. Joe Company headquarters to Bay County, and the addition of a string of high-end developments such as WaterColor, Rosemary Beach, Destin Commons and Grand Boulevard.

Fall 2003‘How Many More Must Die?’
A local fire chief and beach safety experts fear that without lifeguards, the Emerald Coast could be known for “the world’s most dangerous beaches.”

There were 50 reported beach rescues on June 8, 2003. But sadly, Larry Lamotte, 60, of Atlanta, was one of eight people who drowned in the Gulf of Mexico on a day that served as a major turning point in the evolution of beach safety programs along the Emerald Coast’s beaches.

That fateful day became known as “Black Sunday.” With millions of visitors flocking to the famous white-sand beaches along the Northwest Florida Gulf coast each year, forming the backbone of the region’s economy, community concern rose — and action soon followed.

The cornerstone of change was education. All along the coast, communities beefed up lifeguard staffs, added safety programs and embraced a consistent flag warning system. The latter was communicated to locals and visitors in the form of signage, marketing and public relations campaigns and, in the case of Walton County, a friendly mascot — Seemore the Safety Crab.

Walton County, in particular, ramped up its beach program. In August 2003, one month after Black Sunday, the county formed a group called the Beach Safety Education Enhancement Committee. It produced a seven-point action plan designed to improve beach safety along the county’s 26 miles of beach.

The Beaches of South Walton Tourist Development Council conducted a study in July 2009 to determine if the safety efforts worked. The results suggested that 98 percent of those surveyed were aware of the flag system.

Since 2003, the Emerald Coast has rescued one thing for sure — its reputation — by losing its designation as “the world’s most dangerous beaches.”

December 2006/January 2007‘Defending Eglin’
A task force focuses on the future.

Eglin Air Force Base is the largest military base in the Western world. Along with Duke Field and Hurlburt Field, the U.S. military employs 23,000 people and has an estimated $5 billion impact on the area’s economy.

Established in 1935, Eglin is one of the largest military complexes in the world, responsible for the development, acquisition, testing, deployment and sustainment of all air-delivered weapons. The Air Armament Center plans, directs and conducts tests and evaluations of U.S. and allied air armament, navigation/guidance systems, and command and control systems.

Among Eglin’s accomplishments over the past decade is the development the Small Diameter Bomb, the Joint Air to Surface Stand Missile and the Joint Direct Attach Munition.

A story in Emerald Coast Magazine in 2006 centered on the formation of the Defense Support Initiative, which included representatives from all the area chambers of commerce. The group recommended expanding Eglin’s mission to include training for a new fighter plane and moving the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group to the base. One decision that was up in the air in 2006 was whether the 46th Test Wing at Eglin would remain. Today, the test wing is still there, the Army group is scheduled to arrive in 2011, and the new F-35 fighters are coming.

Though its primary purpose is to create, test and evaluate future weapons systems, Eglin is continually in the headlines for various reasons. Tension mounted and debate rose in some communities over noise concerns when the base was selected to house 59 F-35 fighter aircraft. Criticism also came with the decision to privatize Eglin’s housing.

On the lighter side, Eglin marks its 75th anniversary this year. Festivities included the 2010 Open House & Air Show in April, which drew thousands of curious onlookers to Eglin as the Air Force Thunderbirds headlined the show.

February/March 2007
‘Fort Walton Beach and Shalimar Renewed’
With raw land scarce, redevelopment offers the key to future success for these Walton County communities.

In 2007, Emerald Coast Magazine reported that “a drive through Okaloosa County communities of Fort Walton Beach and Shalimar reveals a single obvious commonality: redevelopment at a breakneck pace.” Three years later, a stroll in downtown Fort Walton Beach or a ride through Shalimar reveals that the pace has not slowed much.

According to the Fort Walton Beach Chamber of Commerce, the entire city is enjoying the benefits of refurbishment and brand new developments. New streetscapes, trees and lighting welcome visitors downtown. Plans are in the works for a Downtown Entertainment District. In the meantime, the newly established Downtown Art Walk is enticing locals and visitors into shops and eateries.

As many as five new businesses opened downtown in 2009 alone, including a bakery, a florist, pet boutiques and a resale shop. Waterscape, a lushly landscaped condominium development featuring an elaborate, lazy river pool overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, opened on Okaloosa Island, and two new hotels, La Quinta Inn and Comfort Inn, opened on Emerald Coast Parkway. Uptown Station, a retail center, underwent an extensive expansion, and Kohl’s department store, among others, opened its doors on Beal Parkway.

Shalimar was formed in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Located in Okaloosa County with just 4.2 miles of roadway, the scenic town of fewer than 800 residents is surrounded by water on three sides and is, essentially, built out. In 2007, redevelopment was considered Shalimar’s best opportunity for growth. The city continues to look for ways to lure businesses onto its stretch of State Road 85.

One recent project in the headlines was the town’s plan to extend its courthouse facilities. After much debate, the 84,000-square-foot project was scrapped in March 2009. Though building the project would have cost tens of millions of dollars, according to a report in the Northwest Florida Daily News, halting the project won’t come cheap, either.

County officials invested $2 million on the land, and another $1.5 million was spent over the past five years on design, engineering fees and studies for the defunct project. Now, officials face spending millions renovating the old Shalimar courthouse annex to bring it into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Ironically, plans to erect a new judicial center began in earnest a dozen years ago. If those plans had been put into action, a new annex would already have been open for business in the fall of 2009 when the economy sank. Now, the canceled project appears to be the cost of indecision.