2021 State of the County Address
Just over a month ago, on February 15, Santa Rosa County passed its 179th anniversary of becoming an independent county, separated from Escambia. We are rich in our historic pride and our county seat, the city of Milton which was incorporated in 1844, is one of the oldest towns in the state – incorporated a year before the Territory of Florida joined the United States.
Throughout the last 175 years or so, Santa Rosa County has progressed from very rural agricultural area to a thriving community for businesses and residents, and an inviting destination for visitors. We were ranked #20 in the state for safest counties and #10 for best school districts by Niche.com. With our high quality of living and abundant natural resources, people from all over the country want to make Santa Rosa County the place where they live, work and play. Hundreds of new residents choose to move here annually and build new homes to start their lives – or enjoy their retirement years. Our beaches, creeks and woodlands – a local secret for many years – bring thousands of visitors to the county annually, providing a welcome diversity in culture as well as funding through millions in tax dollars.
In business, we are perched on the edge of an economic boom with Leonardo Helicopters moving in to Whiting Aviation Park, a mutually beneficial project made possible by Triumph funds and a great complement to our strong military presence at Whiting, Hurlburt and Eglin. Growing industry in Santa Rosa County not only means access to higher paying jobs, it’s an opportunity for us to partner with innovators. Agriculture is also a key pillar of our economy and our rich farming history including cotton, peanuts, and timber has sustained families for generations. The momentum in both sectors will continue to drive long-term growth and invest in the people and businesses already here.
The past 12 months have not all been rosy, however. With the pandemic, a 2000-acre fire and a Category 2 hurricane, we are happy to have 2020 behind us, but not all of it was bad and we found some silver linings.
- When a Santa Rosa County resident became one of the first in the state to test positive for the coronavirus, and later sadly became Florida’s first COVID fatality, we were quickly thrust into pandemic response, activating our emergency operations center a year ago to Level 2. Since then, our chairman and key staff have met weekly with the department of health, school district and sheriff’s office – and continue to meet – to discuss and update the strategy for keeping our residents safe, distributing PPE supplies and assisting businesses and families who struggled economically. Through strong relationships with the state and private healthcare providers, we recently acquired a temporary mass vaccination center and have been successfully administering vaccines to our residents in an efficient and highly effective manner. As of March 15, 71% of our 65 and older residents have been vaccinated, putting Santa Rosa County at #7 in the state for vaccination response.
- Despite the pandemic, more visitors came in 2020’s fall shoulder season than ever before – up 26% – to relax on Navarre Beach, paddle the canoe capital of the state, and hike on the protected lands of the Gulf Islands National Seashore, Blackwater State Forest, and Yellow River Marsh Preserve State Park.
- Ajax is mid-way through construction on our judicial center, a project more than 20 years in the making. The new courthouse will replace our 100-year-old, outdated facility and will be conveniently located on Avalon just south of Highway 90 in the center of the county.
- We broke ground on the much-awaited Pea Ridge Connector, a new road connecting Hamilton Bridge Road to Highway 90 in Pea Ridge which will reduce response time significantly for law enforcement, EMS and firefighters.
- The 17-acre Pace Patriot-Tiburon drainage project which – while it was not completed at the time - significantly improved stormwater management during the deluges of Hurricane Sally.
- In addition to the 50 high-paying jobs Leonardo Helicopter will bring to the area, we were awarded $9.5 million in Triumph Gulf Coast funding for our industrial parks, which will soon be home to five more lucrative projects.
- Over the past year, residents and visitors have enjoyed several significant recreational additions with enhancements at Woodlawn Beach, Oriole Beach and Archie Glover boat ramps, an all-accessible playground at Bagdad Recreational Park, a complete makeover to Fidelis Park in the north end and our first NFC Fitness Court at the Santa Rosa Sports Plex. Even more projects are planned, thanks to the renewed local option sales tax.
- And, for the first time ever last summer the animal shelter found homes for every pet and saw its kennels empty. We improved outreach, streamlined the adoption process and provided flexibility to help animals into their forever homes to ensure continued success towards becoming a no-kill facility. We grew our volunteer program and foster base, added a surgery suite, and began a community cat program for reducing pet overpopulation and unnecessary euthanasia.
Many great things are happening in our county right now, but we are at a crossroads. Despite popular opinion, new home construction and property value increases have not brought in enough funding to keep up with our growing needs, nor will it. We have some hard choices to make in the next 12 months, but there is not one person reading this who hasn’t had to make hard choices in the past year.
To help us with strategic planning needed to ensure smart growth for our future, we have partnered with Matrix Design Group to launch a countywide initiative to bring in new ideas from outside the circles of government. Strategic planning ensures a sustained approach to governance. This effort will directly engage our residents to create a strategic plan – a bottom-up, community-driven framework. To successfully solve the challenges in our priorities and funding mechanisms, we must integrate ideas and input from the people we serve directly into the process of governing. In bringing government closer to the public, our residents’ voices will drive our strategic priorities. Transparency is key to public engagement and we strive to be good stewards of the public’s dollars as well as their trust and to deliver a more connected, compassionate, and caring government.
We persevered through several challenges over the past year and we were taught a lot of tough lessons but we’re better for it. With that hard-earned experience, we are paving the path for a better future for Santa Rosa County and beyond. Serving our community… committed to excellence.