The Road to Progress

The Road to Progress Over the past three decades, the Highway 30A Business Corridor has evolved into a viable microcosm of the Emerald Coast, with a strong independent economy as well as its own set of challenges.

By Lori Hutzler Eckert

A vital and growing economy flows through the Emerald Coast by way of U.S. Highway 98, which serves in part as a continual yet centralized business district, tying together the area’s many communities. But on the east end of Walton County, Highway 30A loops on and off 98 to the south, harboring a community and culture which has created a business corridor that stands apart.

Over the past three decades, County Highway 30A has evolved into a brand with a certain equity in a regional and, in some cases, national sense. The name has established an identity synonymous with growth, as 30A is the birthplace of the New Urbanism development movement, as well as an upscale residential and commercial area – all located on some of the nation’s most beautiful beaches and high-ticket real estate.

Traveling down the 19-mile meandering highway, it is apparent that tourism has long been the economic driver for the area. But the development of tourism sprung from the abundant natural resources already found there. The white-sand beaches, crystal-clear water, dune lakes and Florida climate bring in the visitors, who in turn attract the developers that build the businesses and multi-million-dollar, mixed-use resorts that have created a strong and viable economy. It is a cause-and-affect relationship that can be envied by nearly any county in the United States.

The 30A Business Corridor is a microcosm of the Emerald Coast, a world within a world that bustles with an economic strength of its own while greatly benefiting the surrounding region. But 30A wasn’t always changing and growing at its present accelerated speed. Like most of Walton and Okaloosa counties, the location was a prime place for remote vacation cottages and rustic seaside camping not so long ago.

In 1913, the Butler family opened the area’s first motel and general store in the town of Grayton Beach, taking advantage of the incredible natural resources. As a result, the tourism and resort industry was born on 30A. Grayton Beach served as the anchor for the area, and growth began to creep beyond its borders.

With a lack of much needed infrastructure, the area grew at a moderate pace, often being referred to as one of Florida’s best-kept secrets. But in the mid-1970s, Miami developer Robert Davis envisioned something different for 30A.

Development by Design

Davis, who inherited an 80-acre track of land in the area, sought to create a master-planned community that would incorporate the beauty of the area with the tradition of Northwest Florida’s architecture in an upscale development. Employing many notable architects, Davis and his wife, Daryl, made plans to create Seaside, a community that would offer residential housing and vacation accommodations mixed with retail, food and beverage outlets in a pedestrian-oriented setting.

“When we started Seaside 25 years ago, we did not know it would become the birthplace of the New Urbanism . . . but 30A was an ideal place to challenge the prevailing conventions of planning, since Walton County had no zoning code or bureaucracy in 1981,” Davis said.

Today, Seaside continues to set the pace for the mixed-use concept of town development and even redevelopment. The community, which many consider the epicenter of the 30A Business Corridor, is currently preparing to complete its final phase of construction.

“Seaside’s downtown will continue to evolve,” Davis said. He listed new retail outlets, residential options, a redeveloped amphitheater, and a new theater and concert hall as part of the plan.

“Seaside’s role as 30A’s center for life and culture will be strengthened,” Davis said.

Following in Seaside’s pioneering steps, many other developments have risen from the rural land to create a metropolitan mix of communities within the corridor. One of Florida’s leading development companies, St. Joe, built WaterColor and, more recently, WaterSound, expansive projects that have further changed the complexion and economy of 30A. Other luxury developments, including Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach, also have added to the cache of 30A.

Paradise — For a Price

These upscale resorts communities, coupled with the increasing demand for the limited availability of waterfront property in the country, have resulted in sticker shock for some property buyers, but are an economic cornerstone for the area’s economy as well.

Blake Morar, owner of Destin Real Estate Company, located in Santa Rosa Beach on 30A, said that real estate in a high-profile area abundant in natural resources is an example of the classic supply-and-demand principle.

“Highway 30A offers a winning combination of low density, driven by the 50-foot height restriction, and beautiful terrain – so the pricing is substantiated,” he said.

Morar, who has been in the real estate business for 10 years and estimates that he has seen prices in the area escalate approximately 400 percent, said that historically, lulls in the Emerald Coast real estate market, such as the one the area currently is experiencing, are temporary.

“The real key to long-term success on 30A is preserving the natural resources we have, because with the airport coming on line in neighboring Bay County, our area is going to grow – but with people comes pollution,” he said. “If we can preserve what we have here, then we will be beautifully positioned for the next wave of real estate market growth.”

A Designated Destination

Morar’s belief in maintaining 30A’s natural environment is shared by many other local businesses owners and residents through various special interest groups. Leading the way is the Corridor Advocacy Group, which is focused on receiving the “Scenic Corridor” designation given by Florida’s Department of Transportation.

Claire Bannerman, who is spearheading the project as the coordinator for the group, calls the nearly nine-year process a “community project.”

The Walton County Commission signed a letter of intent to seek the designation in 2000. Bannerman, who has been involved in the effort for a year, said that “we are in the eligibility phase, and we are preparing a more-than-50-page application. We hope to get (the designation) by next year.”

Bannerman added that 30A, with its combination of resources – including the rare dune lakes and the manmade features, such as the unique and varied architecture – deserves to hold the highly sought recognition. Because of this mix, she said, “the Florida Department of Transportation considers 30A the highest candidate for ‘Scenic’ designation.”

The Scenic Corridor Designation will bring the opportunity for federal funding, which will improve certain safety and aesthetic aspects such as lighting, signage, bike trails and beautification measures.

In the Shadow of Growth

While beautification is important to the area’s success as a destination resort, maintaining a viable climate for the small-business owner is deemed a paramount concern by many.

“I have a concern about tax increases driving the small business owners out,” said Walton County Commissioner Cindy Meadows, whose Fifth District covers the 30A Business Corridor from its western end to its intersection on County Road 395. “If your taxes triple or double, then it becomes difficult to make a profit.”

Meadows also said that small-business operators facing rising tax costs are selling their property to developers, which could result in a small-town business district that becomes out of balance with chain operators and large-scale projects.

“The unique character of the area is really a result of the small businesses, which a lot of people have put their blood, sweat and tears into,” she said.