It will take an act of Congress, but Jackson and roughly 13 more surrounding counties together could become Florida’s first federally declared National Heritage Area. There are 55 such regions in the United States but not one in Florida so far.
Jackson County Tourist Development Executive Director Christy Andreasen says she’s excited about what the designation could mean. She projects NHA status could generate more national visibility and more visitors, as well as open access to special grants and annual continued federal dollars from a program for which the local community is not now eligible.
She’s encouraging all local residents to attend a meeting on Sept. 27, 1-2:30 p.m., at the Russ House, where representatives of the University of West Florida will host a public discussion on the effort. Details will be offered, questions will be taken, and input will be noted.
UWF is leading the campaign to get the Congressional designation if its research continues to show the idea is a good one. Two entities there, the Florida Public Archaeology Network (FPAN) and the Askew Institute for Multidisciplinary Studies (AIMS), are working now on a feasibility study in which they’re collecting the evidence and justification they want to present in trying to convince lawmakers to take the necessary action.
Being at the meeting on Sept. 27 provides an opportunity for locals to help in a key feasibility measure: Whether there’s evidence of public support. If that isn’t sufficient, the project could be shelved or the non-interested communities carved out of the plan. So far, however, support has been strong in the region, according to Mike Thomin of FPAN.
The upcoming meeting in Marianna will be 12th such session held to share information and gather public input in the 14 counties included in the potential NHA. Thomin said that feedback has been “99 percent positive” in support and that the designation being sought presents an opportunity for the region to “harmonize marketing” for the area.
The most frequently voiced concern so far, he said, is a fear that designation could come with new regulations or changes in property-owner rights. Thomin said that’s an unfounded worry. No new rules and no restrictions come with the designation, he said.
Andreasen said it holds great potential for Jackson County. To be part of the state’s firs NHA, she said, could put the county on the bucket list for tourists whose interests focus on cultural assets. She and other tourism-focused entities could post news of the designation on social media sights in trying to catch the attention of such tourists and link them to deeper information about the county. Jackson and Duval were the third and fourth counties established in Florida, back in 1822, so it had a head start in building an individual history as the state developed. Jackson and Duvall were formed when the only two existing counties, Escambia and St. Johns, were further subdivided for the first time.
The counties included in the proposed NHA includes Escambia and all other counties to its east through Gadsden, then turning south to pick up Wakulla and other points along the coast down to Franklin.
“They’re pulling information and looking at historic notes from centuries back,” Andreasen said. “When they were looking in Jackson County, some of the elements they found are significant. Jackson County has tons of historic landmarks, so many springs, and at the Caverns there was once a log run (used to float felled trees down river). I’m pretty sure they’ve put that in the feasibility study, and there’s so much else here that we have to offer the culture tourist.”
Andreasen said that the county could gain status with potential visitors as part of an NHA.
“Once you have this national destination it stimulates economic development,” she said. “It has a lot of potential to help us further brand the area. It feels good to be proud of where you are. We have things that nobody else does and our natural area is so biologically diverse. There’s some prestige and extra attention that comes with being the first in the state, so I’m really happy to see this moving ahead to this public meeting stage. Everybody can learn more about it and then support it if they see it as a good thing. We’ve got a really great opportunity to see what a great thing we could be of. It’s not going to include us unless we support it, so we all need to come out and learn more , including what we can do to show that support in a way that will be meaningful to Congress.”
That support might include individual letters of support as well as some sent by community organizations and local governments.
“This could put us in a unique category of places to go,” Andreasen said. “People are wanting to learn and live like the locals, they visit many places around the community when they visit, and the designation, I think, is a win-win for us. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, but if we don’t help from the beginning, we’re just doing ourselves and disservice.”
“NHAs are places where historic, cultural and national resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes,” stated a press release regarding the upcoming meeting and its subject. “NHAs are large, lived-in landscapes. NHA entities collaborate to determine how to make heritage relevant to local interests and needs. Designation will not affect the properties’ ownership and it will not impose any new regulations,” it concluded.
Dr. Sorna Khakzad, a primary leader in the effort, said Florida Caverns State Park is a major site that her team is focusing on in gathering justifications for the NHA status, and that the park service is behind the effort. But, she said, individuals with their stories about their experiences there are also important in building a file that will speak to members of Congress. “We’re trying to collect stories and information that people have from their experiences,” she said. “People are the best resources. Their pictures, their memories, those things are important parts of what we’re trying to put together.”
“This is about our experiences on the land and the waterways, every aspect of the landscape and maritime experience,” Khakzad continued. “We’re focusing on industry, innovation and human resilience in telling some of the regional story. When Hurricane Michael hit last year, we were worried about what was going to happen, so we researched how people handle disaster. So what came out of that was that resilience is very important here. From history, even from the first settlements, people are so resilient and eager to stay and rebuild. That’s a very valuable asset of the area. We would like for everybody to get involved so that this is a ‘for the people, by the people’ project.”
Her main partner in the feasibility stage, Thomin, said the team is working to help Jackson and the other involved counties in a different way as well, using some of what they’ve learned so far to assist in a separate effort to have the National Park Service recognize the same region as a “Rivers, Trails and Conservation Area.” That request is currently under NPS review.