Okaloosa County gets a convention center, but some are still bitter over the issue.
By Julie S. Bettinger
After 30 years of wrangling over location, funding and ownership, Okaloosa County began construction on the 70,000-sq.-ft. Emerald Coast Conference Center this summer.
"The multipurpose space will not only help the tourism industry, but the community," says Darrel Jones, executive director of the Tourist Development Council. With space for meetings limited, he says, local organizations can't grow.
Because the county's largest meeting space can handle only 500 people, tourism officials have had to turn away larger groups looking for meeting space. One survey showed Okaloosa lost $11 million in economic impact in one year because it had to turn away groups that it couldn't accommodate.
The center is already booked for March 2003, its targeted completion date.
Jones says getting the center approved this past spring was "a real dogfight." The county had a place for it -- a 54-acre site on Okaloosa Island that for 20 years has been home to an abandoned roller coaster and mini-racetrack -- but differences over who should own the center and manage it divided area residents. Also controversial was the 2-cent hike in the county's bed tax that will pay for the $15.5-million project. Some residents mistakenly thought they'd have to pay the tax imposed on tourists.
The issue generated enough controversy that a small delegation of residents petitioned for a referendum to not only get rid of the civic center, but the entire Tourist Development Council.
Sam Severs, an accountant for Starr Media who is a proponent of the center, says the referendum would have also done away with the county's bed tax entirely -- and therefore eliminated funds for tourism marketing. Severs helped form "Friends of the Emerald Coast" to tout the benefits of the tax and explain that the money is generated by visitors, not locals. They defeated the referendum in May, and the county then gave the go-ahead for the center, which will be owned by the county and managed by the TDC.
Okaloosa County Commissioner Doug Hutcheson, who opposed the center because he says it would lose too much money, recently made an unsuccessful motion to delay the project. His fear: A dropoff in tourism will mean not enough bed taxes to move forward.
The issue has clearly left lingering bitterness among some. "I even lost friends over this issue," Severs says.
Julie Bettinger can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the News
Apalachicola -- Coastal Community Investments is buying Apalachicola State Banking Corp. for about $12 million. Apalachicola, which has assets of about $66 million, will continue to be locally managed and will operate offices throughout Franklin County.
Hosford -- St. Joe Co. (NYSE-JOE) has purchased Sunshine State Cypress, a cypress lumber, sawmill and mulch operation in Liberty County. Sunshine State, which relocated to the area early last year, is on a site with access to rail and the deep-water port at Port St. Joe.
Madison -- The Madison Board of County Commissioners has approved establishing the county's first Economic Development Organization and will fund the salary for its executive director, who nonetheless will not be a county employee. Commissioners expect to fill the position before the end of the year.
Marianna -- Chipola Junior College has formed a partnership with Enron/Florida Gas to train the company's workers in electronics. The training, involving workers from Florida, Alabama and Louisiana, is in preparation of anticipated retirements and expansions in northwest Florida.
Panhandle -- Opportunity Florida, a regional economic development organization representing rural counties, has launched a $75,000 promotional campaign targeting business expansions. The group seeks to inform businesses about programs available to help them grow.
Pensacola -- As part of a trio of projects to improve the Bayou Chico community, Escambia County received $660,000 from the Northwest Florida Water Management District to purchase 65.2 acres for watershed restoration. When complete, the area will be used as public parkland with nature trails and recreational facilities.
The University of West Florida has developed the first program in the state university system that integrates computer and information technology with specific subjects. UWF's Interdisciplinary Information Technology degrees will be offered in five tracks: Bioinformation, digital media, e-learning systems support, web development technologies and computer technology.
PenGraphix, a printing and graphic design company, completed an expansion that more than tripled the size of its facility to 15,000 square feet. The company, which grew from nine to 20 employees following the expansion, also upgraded its printing press and bindery equipment.
South Walton -- St. Joe's WaterColor Beach Club has opened, and the upscale 60-room WaterColor Inn is expected to be complete early next year. Sales of residential lots at nearby WaterSound, also a St. Joe project, started in the second quarter. The average selling price of the first 47 lots -- including beachfront sites -- was $350,000.
Tallahassee -- Taxolog Inc., a cancer research company based in New Jersey, plans to build a 23,000-sq.-ft. biological research lab in Tallahassee. The company is an outgrowth of research conducted by Florida State University chemistry Professor Robert Holton, who invented the cancer-fighting drug Taxol. He serves as chief scientific officer for the company. Taxolog's Tallahassee lab will focus on developing new uses for the drug Taxol.
Travel: Luring AirTran
PANHANDLE -- AirTran Airways has agreed to begin offering service in Tallahassee and Pensacola starting this month. Gov. Jeb Bush joined city, county and business leaders in lobbying the low-fare carrier on behalf of the capital city. The deal includes financial incentives from the city to offset any losses and a contract from the state guaranteeing government employees will use AirTran.
Pensacola was able to lure AirTran service away from Okaloosa Regional Airport with a similar incentive-filled campaign. Community and business leaders guaranteed the airline $2 million in business over the next two years.