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Virtual Town Hall Covers Deficit, Parks, And New Developments

Jennie McKeon/WUWF Public Media

Looking for a creative way to reach constituents during COVID-19, Santa Rosa County District 4 Commissioner Dave Piech gave his first virtual town hall meeting Tuesday. 

Before and during the Zoom conference call, Piech took questions that ranged from traffic, new retail developments, deficit, and the Navarre Park. And he answered them all in about an hour. 

Piech said the pandemic, a 10% increase in health care costs along with the Santa Rosa County Sheriff’s Office budget going up contributed to the county’s $9 million deficit for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. A budget workshop will take place June 16. 

“We truly don’t know what COVID has done,” he said. “It’s going to take major work to bring in a balanced budget.” 

Despite some setbacks, projects are ramping up again in the south end of the county, some have been in the works for years. 

Santa Rosa County commissioners first approved plans for a $6 million upgrade to the park, that would be completed in three phases, in October 2017. Construction on the first phase — which includes a new splash pad, playground equipment, and filling in the duck pond — was supposed to begin last summer, but Piech said engineers forgot to file permits which set the project back. 

“All wetlands permits were obtained April 28; we want to start it as soon as it can,” said Piech. “We’re coming up on a year behind where we should be. We’re going to get the first phase fixed if it kills me.” 

Another long-awaited project is The Boulevard, the retail development on the northwest intersection of U.S. 98 and State Road 87. The 33-acre commercial property purchased in 2018 was supposed to feature a movie theater among several yet-to-be-named retail stores and restaurants. The development is one of the many victims of the pandemic as the movie theater has now dropped out of the project, leaving the development in “limbo,” Piech said. As a key piece of the project, developers are looking to scrap the theater plans and move toward a multiuse complex with a limited number of mid- to high-end apartments alongside big-box stores and food establishments. Piech said he’s heard companies such as Starbucks and Chick-fil-A are on the short-list of possible names. 

What is still a go is the Aldi grocery store complex further east on U.S. 98, which will also include restaurants. 

“Aldi has signed a lease,” Piech said. 

The pandemic helped expedite the Navarre Beach Fishing Pier updates while it was closed from mid-March to May 1. The $1.2 million update included installing weather-resistant wooden planks along the 1,545-foot pier was finished in time for reopening. Other future beach updates include installing shorter mobi-mats as per Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission guidelines and new crosswalks. 

Off the beach, Piech said traffic projects with Florida Department of Transportation, such as the community access road and the first phase of widening U.S. 98, are moving forward, but the process is not quick. A feasibility study was completed last year, but FDOT requires a PDE (Project Development, and Environment) study costs $1.3 million and could take two to three years. 

“(The county) has the choices to go on our own or follow FDOT process,” said Piech. “We have not made a final decision.”

The design phase of the U.S. 98 widening project and proposed flyover in the heart of Navarre is not completed, but small projects such as longer queuing and turn lanes will help alleviate traffic in the interim, Piece said. The advance traffic management system — sometimes called a smart traffic light — is still in the works.