HOLMES AND WASHINGTON COUNTIES - The effort to expand commercial opportunities outward from the established commercial corridor on U.S. 79 south from I-10 to Douglas Ferry Road got a nod of support near the beginning of the Florida's 2017 Legislative Session.

State Representative Brad Drake (R-Eucheeanna) filed House Bill 4211, which would provide for an appropriation for the project.

Should it pass, the bill would be effective July 1 and appropriate $3 million to help lay the project's economic foundation..

"I think it would be a shot in the arm to the local economy in Holmes and Washington County if we can build some economic activity along the Highway 79 corridor," said Rep. Drake. "It's the gateway to the beaches of Bay County, and a ton of opportunity exists; it's just a matter of putting the beginning infrastructure in place."

The project is thought to be the first of its kind in Florida, representing an interlocal agreement between the City of Bonifay and Holmes and Washington counties and a unified effort by the three entities to bring economic growth to the area.

The City of Bonifay has agreed to run grant-funded sewer and water lines south of I-10., and both counties have implementation overlay maps to the existing Future Land Use Maps (FLUM) to better prepare for economic development. By having possible commercial uses approved and outlined ahead of time, potential businesses can cut through the old method of first requesting for land use changes.

The overlays, adopted along the still-expanding State Roads 77 and 79, offer flexibility to development planning by attaching a commercial designation to parcels in the zoned areas without changing the current land use unless the property owner decides to sell the land for commercial use and without affecting property taxes.

Three government entities will soon form an authority to manage future development over expansion along the corridor. The authority will be comprised of a commissioner from each county, a Bonifay City Council member, and one locally recognized business or civic leaders from each county.

The authority, which will have the same reporting responsibilities as other government entities, will finance the infrastructure largely though grants, and the City of Bonifay will benefit by collecting utility revenue generated from future businesses on the corridor.

Washington County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ted Everett states the governments have a better chance to foster growth in local communities as a united team.

"By working together, we significantly increase the opportunity to get money from grants," said Everett. "The total project cost is about $2.3 million, and I believe we can get half of that in grants."

Everett also explained several studies have been conducted that indicate that bringing water and sewer to the corridor could mean about eight new businesses coming to Holmes and Washington counties and the City of Bonifay within three to five years of establishing the infrastructure.

Jim Town of Commercial Property Investments (CPI) has been an active participant in the overlay process and is on the exploratory committee that first began looking for ways to have the city and counties come together for growth as aerial roads 77 and 79 continue to expand.

"It's important to understand how 77 and 79 fit into the I-10 corridor," said Town. "With daily traffic counts at 21,000 for Marianna, 19,000 at Chipley, and 18,000 at Bonifay, we are very competitive for our area in terms of I-10 traffic - but what really matters is the traffic going north and south of I-10."

"In Marianna, daily traffic counts are about 14,000 going north and 7,100 going south. In Chipley, that number is about 11,400 going north and 7,200 going south, and at Bonifay, it's about 10,400 north and 4,600 south. Our two interchanges on I-10 (77 and 79) are competitive with some of these that have significant development," he explained. "Look at Marianna. Why are all the truck stops and shopping centers over there? Two reasons: land use was put in place in advance of growth, and sewer and water is available. Chains develop quickly and don’t have time for you to get your sewer and water down there. They just move on to the next interchange. The 77 and 79 corridors are lacking development because they don’t have land use planning, and they don’t have sewer and water, so we've just been bypassed. That's what led us to looking at the overlay process."

In addition to traffic studies, Town and the rest of the committee has analyzed other data, including market share evaluations to determine projected sales for various businesses in the area.

"Hypothetically, if we had a medium size convenience store at Douglas Ferry Road and 79, it will produce sales above the national average for major convenience stores," said Town. "We know that someone could come in there, develop that site, and make money. That's the key point: if they can't make money, they're not going to come here. You have to have the capacity for growth where it will be most attractive to developers. For example, 83% of Washington County's population is right down the 77 corridor. We need to take advantage of that; that's why it's important we have commercial property along 77 that has water and sewer."

Everett added an increased commercial tax base could also lead to lower property taxes for Holmes and Washington county residents, as well as provide new jobs, which would also stimulate the local economy.

"Without commercial development and retail development in your own county, you're millage rate tends to stay up because your millage rate is largely supported by residential housing," said Everett. "You'd be surprised at what commercial businesses activity can do to bring ad valorem taxes to the county, which should allow county commissioners to bring down the millage rate."

Economic Development Council Chairman Terry Ellis states the coming together of the City of Bonifay and Holmes and Washington counties is the executive of a vital part of the EDC's strategic plan.

"We decided there needs to be an education process that can go on to bring people together," said Ellis. "One of the things that plagues small counties is when all the different entities are operating but not communicating. So, we began to talk about how to break down those barriers and get everyone communicating and understanding - because in all rural counties, what tends to happen is everyone says, 'We need jobs; we're tired of our young people having to move off to get a job.' But then, they don't lay the ground work to put themselves in a position to take advantage of growth opportunities. Many times, the lack of a proactive stance just gets put down to the fact 'Well, we don't have the money; we don't have the tax base to help pay for it.'"

HB 4211 was filed March 7 and is expected to be read in session at a later date.