Santa Rosa County, Florida
Something for everyone
Business View Magazine interviews Dan Schebler, Administrator of Santa Rosa County, Florida, for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Communities
Nestled within Florida’s northwest region is gorgeous Santa Rosa County. Known as the state’s ‘Most Relaxing Place,’ it’s a popular tourist destination – whether for a luxurious beach vacation along the Gulf Islands National Seashore or for an adventurous getaway in the Blackwater River State Forest. The county’s close proximity to crystal clear waters, magnificent wilderness, and boutique shopping also makes it the ideal place to call home. The area is currently growing and expanding at an unprecedented pace.
County Administrator Dan Schebler reports, “Florida’s population is growing and so is ours. We’re anxiously awaiting the census numbers. We’ve averaged about 3,500 people every year for the last 10 years. Our population projections from the Bureau of Economics & Business Research (BEBR) is about 185,000.” He believes Santa Rosa’s high quality of life is a major contributing factor. “It’s about the cost of living, good schools, and nature. We have 1,100-square-miles of area, everything from Gulf Coast beaches to agricultural farmland on the inland. There are lots of different opportunities. If you want to live in a high-rise beach condo you can, if you want to live on a 10-acre farm, you can do that too.”
Santa Rosa County has three incorporated municipalities. In the north is Jay, a small town of about 600 people. In the center is the city of Milton, also the county seat, with a population of 10,000. In the south is Gulf Breeze, a city of approximately 6,000 people. There are also two other census-designated places (CDP), Navarre and Pace, both with a population around 30,000. Santa Rosa’s administration offices are in Milton, but library service centers are set up throughout the county. This allows local government to be located “a little bit of everywhere” to better serve the community.
Santa Rosa’s government is responsible for everything from planning and zoning to animal control and shelter. It also works with local nonprofit groups coordinating recreation programming at all 67 parks. A large aspect of local administration is always public safety, which encompasses many areas. Schebler clarifies, “It is more than just law enforcement, it includes emergency management, fire and EMS. Over the last year we’ve obviously experienced the pandemic, but we’ve also had wildfires, hurricanes, tropical storms, and tornadoes. The county has 15 independent fire districts, which includes our municipalities as well as contracted private ambulance services.
Along with these essential services, Santa Rosa requires a sustainable housing market. Its current inventory is “relatively low” since houses sell quickly. Over the past year, the county has approved construction permits for over 2,000 new single family residential homes to help increase its housing supply. New subdivision developments are also under review. Schebler shares, “One new area in Pea Ridge will provide over 1,100 homes including townhouses. We don’t have a large inventory of urban type housing, so it’s exciting to have this project.”
One remaining challenge is North America’s increasing price of construction materials. This may delay some of the construction, but not stop it altogether. In the meantime, the county is also looking to improve broadband infrastructure. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need to easily function online at home, which is difficult for underserved areas. With the assistance of federal dollars for the expansion and improvement of broadband connectivity, this is soon to change for all areas of the county.
During non-pandemic times, many residents travel outside Santa Rosa for work. About 17 percent commute west to Escambia County, where the Navy Federal Credit Union is located. Many others commute east to Okaloosa County, where Eglin Air Force Base, Hurlburt Field, and lots of defense contractors are based. The Santa Rosa Economic Developmental Office (EDO) aims to create even more local jobs by attracting additional businesses to the area. There are even discussions for a small business incubator type of facility.
“It’s all about growing employment opportunities within the county and reducing that outward commute,” Schebler maintains. “For example, we have the Santa Rosa Industrial Park with available land for purchase. There’s also the new 267-acre Whiting Aviation Park just outside Naval Air Station (NAS) Whiting Field. We’re developing the first 40 acres now. Our first tenant, Leonardo Helicopters US, is already committed. There are five other significant economic development projects going into various parcels of the other business areas, including the Santa Rosa Industrial Park East and the Northwest Florida (I-10) Industrial Park.”
Santa Rosa’s workforce is unique because many are transitioning military personnel from the four major bases surrounding the county. Schebler notes, “Many of the workers are separating or retiring from service and are already trained, able, and ready to enter the workforce.” To help facilitate this integration process, the county works closely with the Santa Rosa County School District, its technical colleges such as Locklin Technical College, and Pensacola State College on workforce development and training efforts. Last year, the county was one of eight northwest counties in the state to receive funding reserved to stimulate economic development and provide workforce training for businesses moving into the Whiting Aviation Park. The funding, better known as Triumph Dollars, was finally secured from BP in a legal settlement following the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in 2010. The funds have greatly benefited Santa Rosa County, which was especially impacted by the tragedy.
Santa Rosa has become a more resilient community as a result. Staying strong together and valuing local partnerships became essential over the last 12 months. “We’ve all learned from the pandemic the importance of partnering with our public and private health care providers,” asserts Schebler. “That has helped us successfully work our way through the pandemic. Another key part of our community is the military, specifically NAS Whiting Field. It is a major employer and driver of our economy. The partnership with the Navy is one we’ve been growing over 60 years. At NAS Whiting Field, they train Navy pilots, Coast Guards, and Marine Corps helicopter pilots. We have a very close working relationship with them.”
Santa Rosa’s well-maintained infrastructure also helps support community partnerships. With over 1,500 miles of both paved and dirt roads throughout the county, all must be kept in good driving condition. Especially considering these roads are used by military personnel, commuters, tourists, and of course residents. The county is paving the dirt roads close to waterways to reduce runoff. Another area of concern is increased traffic. Schebler reports, “We’re focusing on expanding our roadways. We’ve invested $13 million into building a new connector road – a pathway through the county’s center to help alleviate some high-traffic areas. It’ll be our first four-lane road with bike and pedestrian improvements. It’s a very exciting project and should be completed in late 2022.”
Santa Rosa also has some heavily traveled thoroughfares such as U.S. Route 98, and Interstate 10. So Schebler and his team work closely with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) on possible design and capacity improvements. Independently, he also looks for better traffic flow opportunities where local roads connect to highways.
Alongside infrastructure, water is always a key issue. Schebler acknowledges, “On the environmental front, we’re working with some of our cities and utility companies to improve water quality. A primary objective is removing wastewater effluent from local surface waters as well as increasing beneficial reuse. We want to improve the treatment level of those effluents, so the public can safely access the reuse for watering the lawn, etc.”
The county is also engaged with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on a Coastal Resilience Grant program. Small resiliency studies, along with some planning and design, have been done at Santa Rosa Sound and several waterfront parks on Escambia Bay. Schebler explains “We’re taking a bigger look at the county and a lot of that property, considering how to best prepare for climate change and how we improve resiliency – whether that’s from flooding or from storms. So, we’re creating a geographic information system (GIS) model to look at those areas of vulnerability to identify future construction projects.”
The county has been working on a new strategic plan that focuses on the next 15 years, providing local government with key points like improving traffic, the roads, and storm water. “We’re challenged with developments which preceded current regulations, especially regarding storm water,” says Schebler. “We’ve been going back and completing storm water retrofit projects, really improving our resiliency.” Over the last three years, retrofitting has prevented flooding in almost 300 homes; highlighting how the local administration will always work to protect residents across all county areas.
To sum it up, Schebler shares, “From the wooded banks of Coldwater Creek to the emerald-green waters at Navarre Beach, our natural resources draw in tourists, new residents, and business owners alike to all the good things we have going on here in Santa Rosa County.”
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AT A GLANCE
Santa Rosa County, Florida
What: A modern growing collection of communities; population 185,000
Where: Northwestern Florida
Panhandle Grading and Paving, Inc. – panhandlegradingandpaving.com
For over 40 years, Panhandle Grading and Paving, Inc. has had the opportunity to perform road construction in Santa Rosa County. The growth and progress that Santa Rosa has experienced over the years is a direct reflection of the county and how well they have responded to the needs of our community. Their efforts in gaining input from the public and surrounding areas, is what has provided us with complex and diverse construction opportunities.
As a local contractor, Panhandle has worked alongside Santa Rosa County on countless projects to effectively assess, restore, and maintain the public road system. We are currently working on the Pea Ridge Connector project, which is the first new four-lane, divided highway in three decades, connecting Highway 90 with Hamilton Bridge Road. This is the largest road infrastructure project undertaken by SRC in over 30 years. Upon completion, it will alleviate traffic congestion while providing the public with a quicker, more convenient commute. This is just one of the many examples of the growth and development that is taking place in Santa Rosa County. We are grateful to be a part of the community, and we look forward to continuing our services with Santa Rosa County.
Mott MacDonald – www.mottmac.com
Mott MacDonald is a $2 billion global engineering company whose purpose is to improve society by considering social outcomes in everything we do. With over 180 offices, we work in sectors including transportation, buildings, power, oil and gas, water and wastewater, environment, education, health, international development, and digital infrastructure.
Santa Rosa County Tourist Development Office – Getrelaxing.com
The Santa Rosa Tourist Development Office is responsible for promoting tourism to the county, which is branded as “Navarre Beach: Florida’s Most Relaxing Place.” The tourism revenue generated contributes to the long-term health of the county’s economy, while helping improve the quality of life for all Santa Rosa County residents.