It Takes A Town

Marianna pulls together to win recognition as Florida’s Rural Community of the Year and to jumpstart the local economy

At first glance, Marianna may seem like so many other small, rural towns that dot the I-10 corridor of Northwest Florida. Except for one thing: Marianna’s Southern charm — and the community’s efforts to make it a better place for residents and business — last year led to its recognition by the U. S. Department of Agriculture as Florida’s “Rural Community of the Year.”

Hit hard by the Great Recession, this is a town that pulled itself up by the bootstraps, found ways to improve its image and provided jobs for area residents. While the public works projects the city has embarked on may not be glamorous, they’re the type of improvements needed to attract more business to the area.

Marianna, population 6,000, was selected for the honor after beating out 16 other Florida towns that had applied. It won because of its emphasis on improving the town’s infrastructure and success in leveraging funds to maximize those efforts, which include everything from roadway resurfacing and water quality improvements to the creation of a new farmers’ market.

Crossing the Chipola River and entering Marianna, those efforts are evident as construction crews work on repaving roads and building a “seating wall” around the Jackson County courthouse. A painter brushes the finishing coat on the new, hilltop Farmers’ Market, an open-air structure that is set to provide local area farmers with a more central location to sell their produce. Not only is the new pavilion visible from the main road, it’s easy to access, unlike the old market that was tucked away on a side street, explained City Manager Jim Dean, a leader in making change happen.

The city’s wide-ranging improvements include the revamping of the water and gas lines, resurfacing of roads and the creation of sidewalks — all large scale improvements that have created jobs for the community.

Founded in 1827, Marianna has a rich past. During the Civil War, the Battle of Marianna was fought in her streets. That local clash between North and South has been referred to as Florida’s Alamo because of the fierce and deadly fighting that took place. The town is interspersed with historic Victorian and Antebellum homes that still stand as witness to that era.

Natural resources also add to the town’s draw. The Florida Caverns State Park brings hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. The spring-fed Chipola River, once used to transport bales of cotton downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, now draws outdoor enthusiasts for kayaking and tubing.

But all this wasn’t enough to keep Marianna from the harsh realities that have caused so many other small towns to become economically depressed. In the 1920s, the area was home to a large commercial industry that harvested a small orange citrus fruit called Satsuma, only to have the entire industry wiped out by cold weather a decade later. More recently, Marianna has faced the closing of many industrial businesses that left area workers unemployed.

How did Marianna lift herself up and make big changes during a struggling economy when many other towns could not? Like so many good recipes, it was a mix of ingredients.

Dean attributes much of the success to his team of city employees who all had a hand in making the changes happen. They joined with virtually every state or federal agency they could to get the funding for improvements.

Sewer, water, sidewalks and street lights are not glamorous projects, but the city recognized the need to overhaul the aging infrastructure to improve services for the residents as well as attract large companies. Some parts of the sewer system dated back to 1910 and showed problems that any century-old system would.

Marianna partnered with the Governor’s Office to hire an engineering firm to help the city create a master plan. To complete all the projects, the city partnered with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Department of Transportation, saved gas tax dollars over a five-year period and secured federal funding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help pay for the improvements.

“It’s not a beauty pageant,” said Art Kimbrough, president and CEO of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not about being the prettiest town. The award is recognition of the achievements of the City of Marianna that have helped the community. Jim and his team really did their push-ups in order to have Marianna named a top performing rural community. They are very savvy in terms of planning and working all the different sources to get funding.”

One of the area’s largest employers, the Family Dollar, which employs more than 500 area residents, built its 907,000 square-foot distribution center in Marianna partly because of the availability of utility services which the city and county teamed up to offer.

The Ice River Springs water bottling company also located its plant in Marianna because of the infrastructure improvements the city and county offered to provide, including better water and waste water facilities, a regional storm-water retention area and a new four-lane road out of the Marianna industrial park that gives large trucks easy access to I-10.

Other area employers include the Arizona Chemical Company, the Old Castle Concrete Company, the Federal Correction Institution, several state prisons and Walmart, which employs more than 200 residents. The state-run Sunland Center, a facility for the developmentally disabled, employs 800 people and has a

$33 million payroll.

Many of the city’s changes have been years in the making. In the early 1990s, the historic downtown’s main street was made up mostly of pawn shops and tattoo parlors. Like many small, declining towns, the downtown had no draw. As part of an effort to invigorate the downtown, which has buildings dating back to the 1860s, Charlotte Brunner, director of the Main Street Marianna program, helped develop a detailed economic restructuring plan.

Since 1992, $15.5 million has been poured into the downtown revitalization. That funding was a mix of private and public dollars for construction and rehabilitation. This ongoing project has helped Marianna’s downtown historic district transform. About 20 restaurants, shops and services now call the downtown home.

The Main Street program is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has been hard hit by budget cuts. However, the city obtained funding through Community Development Block Grants, Community Redevelopment Area funds, the Florida Recreation Development Assistance Program, USDA Rural Development, Florida Communities Trust and the Jackson County Tourist Development Council.

The Facade Improvement Grant provided for 32 downtown businesses to spruce up their storefronts with fresh paint, new awnings and other exterior improvements. The city used a matching grant program, which provides up to $7,500 or one half of the improvement costs (whichever is less) per business located within the community redevelopment area. The program has put $300,000 in improvements back into Marianna’s downtown.

“Our attitude is you can’t wait, you need to make it happen,” Dean said. “Whenever people see something good happening in the city, it generates other activity. It feeds on itself.”

The Farmer’s Market Pavilion is located in the new Madison Street Park. In addition to being a new venue for the Jackson County Growers’ Association, the city has plans to add a children’s playground and walking paths. The pavilion is also available for rent by the public.

Marianna stood out from the pool of applicants for the USDA award because of its vast infrastructure improvements and its leadership, said USDA Rural Development Area Director Joseph Fritz.

“The leaders are the biggest thing here. The people have to get behind the idea or it won’t move forward,” Fritz said. “You need people with a vision for the town.”

The USDA award does not come with any monetary prize, however, the status as “Rural Community of the Year” helps the city obtain other funding sources by showing they “have their act together” Kimbrough said.

“The City of Marianna has been very active with projects to improve their community, including infrastructure and economic development,” said USDA Rural Development State Director Richard A. Machek. “City leaders have also been very successful in finding and securing alternative funding for their projects. The residents and leaders of the City of Marianna should be proud of their accomplishments.”

Fifth generation Marianna resident John Milton offers historical perspective. His ancestors include Gov. John Milton, who served as governor of Florida during the Civil War and led the military headquarters for Southern troops in Marianna. Milton is chairman of the board of Daffin Foodservice, a family-owned independent food distributor that has been in operation in the Panhandle since 1870.

“I feel like politically they know what it takes to get things done in Marianna. You need a leader like Jim Dean to guide people. Somebody has to be in charge of things, and everyone has to come together. It takes vision,” said Milton, who is also chairman of the board for the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce.

Milton also credits the cooperation between the city and county to attract businesses.

“The city and the county have to work together to make things happen,” Milton said. “Everybody is focused on the same thing so there is no inter-squabbling.

“The USDA award is just another feather in your cap,” he added. “It is recognition that the city is doing something that is noticeable, and it shows the leaders are doing the right things. It’s laying the groundwork for the right growth for the community.”

All these efforts are for one goal. “We want to create an environment in Marianna that shows it is a wonderful place to live and a great place to do business,” Dean said.



Marianna Fast Facts from the 2010 U.S. Census:


Population — 6,102

Male — 47.2 percent

Female — 52.8 percent

Median Age — 35.8 years

Average Family Size — 2.95

Total Housing Units — 3,038

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, April 2011


Marianna is:

  • The county seat of Jackson County.
  • 8.1 square miles.
  • Is known as “The City of Southern Charm.”