Rural Madison County finally has a plan -- but businesses are wary.
by Julie S. Bettinger
The challenges facing economically disadvantaged Madison County and its 19,500 residents are a microcosm of rural county problems. The county, on the Florida/Georgia border, lacks basic infrastructure. Businesses, for example, have been forced to provide their own water and sewer treatment for the most part, with no assistance from the county. Those that have city sewer can't grow because the system is at capacity and needs to be repaired or replaced.
Agriculture and government are its largest employers, including a state juvenile detention facility employing 100 workers. Dixie Packers, a meat packing plant that serves Winn-Dixie stores, is the largest private employer with 300 workers.
Until fairly recently, Madison also lacked even a basic economic development strategy and an organization to carry out a plan. The county worked up an outline for economic development in 1996, featuring 30 major projects, but that plan and a newly formed Madison County Development Council didn't help it win federal funds to improve services.
Four years later, with no progress to speak of, the county determined that the plan was too broad. It included vague statements such as "increase adequate and affordable housing" and "develop needed skills." The plan didn't even offer a hint as to where the funding would come from.
Some now hope that consensus around a new, more specific plan will create some momentum: Last year, Madison became one of 11 counties to receive a federal county rural development grant, administered by the Florida Association of Counties. A consultant helped business and government leaders boil down the original 30 projects into seven priorities, each specifying a lead agency or organization, funding source and timeline.
This spring, thanks to nearly $200,000 in grants, Madison should have a plan for development at interchanges, an airport relocation blueprint to include industrial park development and marketing strategies for tourism.
Many business owners, however, are wary of all the studying. "You can do all the studies you want to," says developer Jimmy Riggins, "but you don't need to spend more money to realize you need infrastructure around the interchange."
Paula Arnold, Madison County's chief administrator, says business owners have to be realistic. "This is not going to be something that happens overnight,'' she says. "It may look like we're all over the place, but we're making headway."
Julie Bettinger can be reached by e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
In the News
Defuniak Springs -- Walton County commissioners cleared the way for a 42-acre mixed-use development despite protests by residents from surrounding neighborhoods. The site, adjacent to Topsail Preserve, is a cypress pond, not protected wetlands, the developer says.
Pace -- Sterling Fibers, a manufacturer of acrylic fiber for textile, industrial and technical applications, cut 160 of the approximately 200 jobs at its Pace plant. The company cited reduced demand for its specialty fibers, international competition and increased energy costs.
Panama City -- Panama City Beach was named the top spring break destination by the Travel Channel based on the quality of its beaches and the area's entertainment, among others. It outranked Cancun, Mexico, and Jamaica. Other top Florida contenders: Daytona Beach (8) and Key West (9).
Refurbishing of St. Andrews Marina will be delayed by several months because of confusion over project specifications and standards. The $2.2-million makeover, which was expected to be completed March 1, includes 102 commercial and residential boat slips.
Panhandle -- The Beaches of South Walton and Pensacola are the only Florida partners in a new tourism marketing deal that includes three states and 11 convention and visitors bureaus. The group's goal is to become recognized as part of the "South Coast," in the same vein as West Coast and East Coast. A new website has been set up to promote the partnership, www.southcoastusa.com.
Pensacola -- Military officials are concerned that encroaching development may affect air operations. Flight path limitations have been a major factor in past base closures. A task force is considering designating areas surrounding northwest Florida military installations, including the Naval Air Station in Pensacola, as state preservation sites.
Pensacola Gulf Coastkeepers, a non-profit environmental public awareness group, has filed a $500-million lawsuit against Conoco, claiming that one of its fertilizer factories leaked a variety of toxic pollutants into Bayou Texar. Trial lawyer Mike Papantonio, a leading attorney in class-action suits, including several against the tobacco industry, is representing the Coastkeepers.
Pensacola Beach -- Construction of the $200-million Portofino resort and condominiums has started at Pensacola Beach. The first phase, consisting of two towers and a spa, is expected to be completed in November 2003.
Port St. Joe -- The St. Joe Port Authority recently acquired two sites totaling 26 acres in an effort to reopen the deepwater seaport, which became inactive 15 years ago. The parcels, purchased from the St. Joe Co., will be used for a new ship berth and cargo staging and storage areas. Apalachicola Northern Railroad plans to offer rail service to the site.
Tallahassee -- Connecticut-based Paradigm4, a message-switching communications provider, laid off 200 of its 250 employees, including 21 in Tallahassee.