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Around the State-Northwest-Jan.1999

Destin -- Happy Stores Inc., a convenience-store chain with 27 locations in the Panhandle, plans to sell the company to its workers. The chain set up an Employee Stock Ownership Plan to ward off potential hostile takeovers. Happy Stores employs nearly 225.

Jackson County -- Voters approved a 2% bed tax that kicks in this spring and should fund the county's nascent tourism industry, which will cater to eco-tourists.

Lynn Haven-- An ambitious program that courted companies for the local commerce park is on hold. The city has a budget shortfall of nearly $1 million. It will raise water and sewer fees and eliminate 15 jobs.

Panama City -- Local airport officials postponed plans to extend the main runway another 2,200 feet and are pursuing an option to build a new facility in West Bay. A feasibility study will take at least a year and cost about $20,000. St. Joe Co. says it might donate property for the new airport.

Port St. Joe -- Florida Coast Paper Co., the biggest local employer, has been shut down for months, so Mayor Johnny Linton sent out more than 1,200 invitations to companies to consider relocating here. Area unemployment exceeds 18%.

St. Joe Co. started construction on a 10-acre barge facility near the Intracoastal. Company officials say the facility will be used to load barges with forestry products destined for markets in north Florida, including Panama City and Jacksonville.

Santa Rosa County -- The 2% bed tax collected in southern Santa Rosa will be levied in the north also starting this spring.

Southport -- Residents want to incorporate. Nearly 80% of the community's 6,000 residents approved the proposal in November. Next, the Legislature must sign off on the deal. Southport would become the ninth municipality in Bay County.

Tallahassee -- Physician Steven M. Scott bought HMO Healthplan Southeast from Coastal Physician Group, where Scott is majority shareholder. Scott says he'll infuse the HMO with money to keep it running. Healthplan Southeast, founded in 1986, has more than 80,000 members and 2,000 affiliated providers from Pensacola to Ocala.

Local government officials are considering a plan to solve the city's traffic problem with "greenway transit," a tree-lined tram system that would link the Capitol, FSU and Florida A&M with the airport and the government's satellite offices. Six other Florida cities may be interested also. The plan would cost more than $100 million and take 10 years.