There are 49 designated National Heritage Areas scattered across the U.S.
And Northwest Florida could be No. 50.
A National Heritage Area (NHA) is a place where historic, cultural, and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes, according to the National Park Service. Designating an NHA is not an easy process. It takes years of research, feasibility studies, public input — not to mention an act of Congress.
Sorna Khakzad, research associate and faculty member at UWF’s Askew Center for Multidisciplinary Studies, and Mike Thomin, museum manager and research associate at Destination Archaeology Resource Center have spent the past two years exploring the rich and diverse history and culture of Northwest Florida. When they both heard about National Heritage Areas, they both thought “why isn’t there one in Florida?”
“When looking at a map of Florida, people always think of theme parks and alligators,” said Khakzad at a presentation last week inside the Indian Temple Mound Museum in Fort Walton Beach. “(Northwest Florida) has more than 70 cultural heritage spots and unique natural resources. How do we make our area known nationally? How can we really highlight it?”
An NHA designation could be a “gamechanger” for the panhandle, Thomin said. It would not only help brand the area but provide up to $700,000 in annual funding in addition to technical support from the National Park Service.
“The two-year heritage tourism study we recently completed found that many heritage sites in our area are in need of both those things — funding and opportunities for technical training,” he added.
Part of the designation is setting boundary lines for the region, while there has not been a definitive answer, suggested boundary lines cover everything from Escambia to Franklin Counties, in one suggested map the boundary is set all the way to Jefferson County.
Thomin and Khakzad plan to host public meetings across the region to get input. A third meeting is set for 1 p.m. on Sept. 25 at the Panama City Publishing Co. Museum. The public can also follow the process and submit their ideas on the Florida Panhandle NHA Facebook page.
“This project is not possible without collaborative approach,” Khakzad said. “Tell us your unique stories of your towns and cities and regions.”
Diane Merkel, president of the Walton County Heritage Museum, said she’s hoping the NHA will include her area, but regardless she’s excited about the project.
“This could be a great unifier for the region,” she said. “Most of us are just volunteers. If you love history, you love telling people about it. So this could also help get that next generation involved and make history come alive to them."
According to a 2012 study, NHAs generate about $12.9 billion annually in the U.S. They also create and support 148,000 jobs.
“We know for a fact, from Michigan to Florida from California to New York, that people come for cultural tourism they stay longer and they spend more money and we’ve known this since the 90s,” Thomin said.
Every NHA has to have a unique and compelling story. The Northwest Florida NHA would focus on the waterways of the panhandle.
“Our unique maritime cultural landscape and natural resources — including the coast, sound, bays, and rivers — played a vital role in the story of the building and defending our nation,” Thomin said. “It continues to shape how this national narrative will unfold in the future.”
The next step for the NHA is the feasibility study, which will be completed by August 2019. The study will then be reviewed by the National Parks Service before it goes to Congress.
“Since we are getting feedback from NPS staff involved with managing NHA's during our feasibility study we hope everything will go through smoothly,” Thomin said. “Based on other NHAs that we've looked at the entire process generally takes between five and 10 years. With enough community and political support, this could potentially happen sooner.”