A controversial developer has the tiny town of Crestview dreaming big
By Julie S. Bettinger
It's not often a wealthy businessman strolls into rural Crestview, buys 11,000 acres and announces his intention to attract more industry to the area. Ron Davis, president of EarthArt Inc., a construction and development company based in Newberry, west of Gainesville, has offered Okaloosa County 161 acres for a wastewater treatment site and has committed to donate land for a north-south bypass around Crestview that could serve as a hurricane evacuation route.
Why the interest in Crestview, population 14,275? Davis says he's a "country bumpkin" from Callahan with a soft spot for the countryside. He has a different reputation, however, among some in Alachua County, where he's cleared hundreds of acres of forest land to plant slash pines. The project there has prompted outrage from environmentalists decrying what they call a "tree massacre,'' according to the Gainesville Sun.
Davis' entry into Crestview has spurred Mayor George Whitehurst to revive a 30-year-old plan to create a four-lane interstate connector joining his town with Andalusia, Ala. Whitehurst says he's been trying to get an alternate route to state road 85, which runs through the center of Crestview, since the 1970s. "You don't get many people to give you a thousand acres of land for a connector," Whitehurst says. "We still need it, and I'm going to still push for it as long as I'm here."
Larry Sassano, executive director of the Economic Development Council of Okaloosa County, has already started the process of getting a 250-acre Davis-owned parcel certified for a semiconductor plant, meaning the site meets the criteria to house a chip plant.
The 11,000-acre north Okaloosa parcel, called Shoal River Ranch, shows great potential for development, Davis says. "It has every form of transportation and access and few trees. You can move right in and begin construction."
Davis hopes to position Crestview, one of the three fastest-growing cities in the state, for further growth. "If we can get the politicians behind us on the bypass, there's no doubt it would be a hell of a private/public partnership."
In the News
Escambia County -- Four of Escambia's five county commissioners were indicted after a grand jury investigation into two recent land deals. Mike Bass, Terry Smith, Willie J. Junior and W.D. Childers, a former state senator, face charges of bribery, racketeering, theft and violating the Sunshine law. Gov. Jeb Bush suspended all four commissioners. Real estate agent Joe Elliott and his wife, Georgann, were also indicted.
Panacea -- The Wakulla County Commission ordered developer J. Don Nichols to stop work on his Tide Creek development near Ochlockonee Bay on 1,300 acres he owns between Panacea and Alligator Point. Nichols, of Tennessee, must pay for the county to hire an engineer to investigate accusations that his contractor, Walter Dickson, illegally connected to the county's sewage collection system and damaged wetlands. Nichols was also required to scale back his plans for the Hidden Harbour subdivision in Franklin County, reducing the number of homes from 35 to 29 on 44 acres and banning private docks and seawalls, which environmentalists feared would harm the coastal marsh.
Pensacola -- Construction is under way on a $2.8-million equestrian center on Mobile Highway. The main arena totals 177 acres and will draw events such as rodeos, horse shows, livestock events and dog shows. In addition to the 80-acre horse arena, over the next two to five years the center will feature a dog park, camping and trail facilities. The complex is expected to open by this summer.
Pensacola Beach -- Crews have broken ground on the $26-million Hilton Garden Inn. The Gulf-front hotel, expected to open next spring, will include 183 rooms and 10,000 square feet of meeting space. Two other hotel and conference centers are also under construction. The $14-million SpringHill Suites by Marriott is expected to be completed before the summer, and the $250-million Portofino will be completed next year.
Port St. Joe -- Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. has announced it will demolish the 60-year-old paper mill, which closed in 1999. The demolition is set to begin this spring and will take about 20 months.
Sandestin -- The opening of the Marlin Grill and Jim N Nicks BBQ restaurants completed phase one of the Village of Baytowne Wharf at Sandestin Golf and Beach Resort. The waterfront village, spanning 28 acres along the Choctawhatchee Bay, includes shops, restaurants, art galleries and bookshops. Condo lofts, townhouses and homes surround the village.
Tallahassee -- The closing of two call centers has cost the area 342 jobs. Alltel's move to more centralized call processing left 42 without jobs. Sprint PCS' restructuring affected 300.
Crow Steps Down
TALLAHASSEE -- Physicist Jack Crow, who was largely responsible for bringing the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory to Tallahassee, has announced he will retire as director at the end of the year. The 62-year-old Crow plans to continue doing research at Florida State University and to help create other research facilities in the area.