Toughing It Out
Franklin County wants to make something very clear to the nation and the world. It is open for business. The beaches are clean. The seafood is safe. And county leaders want you to know that, “We’re Salty.” So far, the new marketing message appears to be getting some traction. There are definite bright spots in the county’s economy, but there’s a long way to go for this area to return to what was considered normal only two years ago.
Toughing It Out
Franklin County battles to lure back tourists and encourage new business By Lee Gordon
Franklin County wants to make something very clear to the nation and the world. It is open for business. The beaches are clean. The seafood is safe. And county leaders want you to know that, “We’re Salty.”
So far, the new marketing message appears to be getting some traction. There are definite bright spots in the county’s economy, but there’s a long way to go for this area to return to what was considered normal only two years ago.
“Tourism has returned to Franklin County — only better,” said Curt Blair, administrator for the Franklin County Tourist Development Council, as the summer season began to wind down. “The numbers are up from the pre-spill period, the beaches are clean and there is more to do.”
An estimated 11,000 residents live in Franklin County, mostly in Apalachicola and Carrabelle.
St. George Island is where a lot of the tourism dollars come from, and the number of visitors was likely boosted with the island’s state park earning the designation of the 6th Best Beach in America by Dr. Beach earlier in 2011.
The numbers and the accolades, however, don’t accurately reflect the devastation that has hit this small coastal community.
First came the Great Recession, which cut short hopes for an expected housing boom and the jobs and economic boost that would have accompanied it. Then came the BP spill. While the oil never really hit the county, the perception that sludge had crept onto the coast was enough to keep people away. Next, on April 27, 2011, a tornado ripped through the county, destroying homes and businesses. The destruction created a few clean-up jobs, but once the mess was gone, so too was the temp work.
Today, the county’s unemployment rate hovers around 7.8 percent. But through it all, those who live in Franklin County have remained committed to the long term success of its people, its business and its lifestyle.
“To realize a sustainable economy for Franklin County, we must consider the limited employment opportunities we currently offer,” said Franklin County District 1 Commissioner Pinki Jackel. “The direction I would like to see Franklin County move is along the lines of broadening our employment and educational opportunities for our graduates, our young people, who are our future.”
The Two Pillars
Franklin County is known for its two main industries: seafood and tourism. In 2010, the oil spill brought tourism down and the seafood wasn’t selling. To counter that, the Chamber of Commerce and Tourist Development Council put together a new marketing campaign called “We’re Salty” — an effort to encourage tourists to enjoy the beaches and seafood. At least on those two fronts, there are indications that things may have started to turn the corner.
“This year, we are having a great year, due to a number of factors,” Alan Pierce, Franklin County director of administrative services, said in early fall. “First, our bay has remained open all year long without a substantial closure. As well, our seafood workers have had extended areas and hours to work and this helps everyone that works on the water. Our visitor numbers are strong and our season has enjoyed no storm interruptions, and this also bodes well for our area.”
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Anita Grove says businesses in Franklin County need to think outside of the box to succeed in this economy.
“They need to reinvent themselves,” said Grove of how businesses can succeed, “by being unique and selling the items that can’t be found anywhere else.”
Laverne Holman of Forgotten Coast Outfitters in Apalachicola has seen the same thing. Her business isn’t faltering, but she’s had to change the way she does business to succeed.
“We haven’t been affected because the tourists keep coming,” said Holman, “(But) instead of big trips, families are taking smaller road trips to Franklin County. As long as people keep doing that, businesses will be happy.”
Despite the uptick in work and visitors, however, some fishermen and business owners along the coast still feel the effects of the spill. And with the higher costs of food and gas, some of those who once were part of a booming industry are fighting to keep food on the table.
“We’re working about half speed,” said oysterman Bruce Millender. “We’re working about 50 percent of what we could be doing prior to the oil spill.”
Fisherman Kevin Pitts echoed the sentiment. “I mean, we go out and make a good check, but you come home and, after expenses are paid, you are stuck making barely minimum wage.”
The Tourism Development Council (TDC) is using money from BP to get the word out, especially throughout the Southeast, to promote the county to visitors. But despite their efforts, local businesses and restaurants are barely treading water thanks to the economy and the lasting effects of the spill.
“I know from last year at this time we are down around 10 percent or maybe a little more,” said Bob Saker, owner of The Hut Restaurant. “From two years ago, we are down 20–30 percent.”
The TDC came up with the marketing slogan, “We’re Salty.” The high profile campaign has been used in Florida, Georgia and up the Eastern Seaboard to promote tourism and seafood in Franklin County. The state of Florida also received $10 million from BP to promote seafood across the state. And the county used BP money to enhance some of its local festivals, including The Oyster Spat on St. George Island in October and the annual Seafood Festival in November, where country music star Travis Tritt appeared.
“They have been very proactive in spending that (BP) money to benefit all of our local communities in seafood and tourism promotion,” said Jackel of the TDC.
Jackel has just been appointed by the National Association of Counties to an economic development steering committee that she believes will give her new avenues to benefit Franklin County.
“One of our functions will be lobbying Washington for support of local and regional economic projects that promote better environments for job creation,” Jackel said, “One thing everyone can agree on is getting folks back to work and, of course, I’ll be keeping my eye on opportunities that may fit well locally and for the state of Florida.
Developing the Future
Franklin County was moving full speed ahead until the oil spill. The real estate market was the hardest hit. Construction and new homes were supposed to give the county a much needed boost, providing jobs and bringing new residents to the area. But the market dried up, new developments didn’t happen and there’s no guarantee on when things will get better.
“Before the spill we were issuing 150 building permits a year, now we are issuing 40 a year,” said Pierce, “The projects that were in development, such as Summer Camp and St. James Bay, took big hits on their future hopes for recovering. St. James Bay had a lot of houses built as speculations and the banks have now taken over.”
Added Jackel, “The ripple effect of those folks who were planning to purchase property here and did not at a time when we were beginning to see our market improve in 2010 cannot go understated. Having the experience of owning a small business, I know you can never recapture that market and lost dollars. The ripple effect has an impact on our tax base and every business in the county, and we are still feeling those effects.”
Bob Saker, who has owned The Hut restaurant since 1992 says even if the economy rebounds, he thinks it’ll take at least five years before the county gets back to some sense of normalcy.
“We have businesses that are starting to close,” said Saker. “We went through the summer and it’s usually good enough to get you through the winter. But summer wasn’t good. The more businesses close, the more the tax base shrinks — it’s a domino effect. People are making less money because they are losing their jobs, which means less money for the area.”
Now the county is giving some tax credits to help new businesses and existing businesses. If you are a business in an enterprise zone designated by the state, you are eligible for tax credits. And, for rural areas of concern designated by the governor, there are potential tax breaks and even incentives for those who create jobs.
“But one size doesn’t fit all,” said Pinkel. “We are committed to preserving our pristine environment and any new business will need to be compatible with maintaining the integrity of our environment and community.”
No one knows what the future holds, but the community is hopeful.
“Predicting the future of our area or any area in today’s economic time is a slippery slope,” Pierce said. “However, people love Franklin County seafood and we are easily accessible to a number of fairly large markets, such as Tallahassee, Atlanta, Birmingham and others. In good economic times, we do very well, and in poorer economic times, we survive. Every economy will go as our country goes, and obviously there is room for a lot of improvement.”
An existing business that the county is looking to expand on is the Apalachicola regional airport, which was constructed by the federal government in 1939. It has three runways, each a mile long, but is underutilized and needs to be improved if it’s going to help boost the local economy.
“We are hopeful … to attract a manufacturing industry or a repair industry that would call Franklin County home and bring new jobs and residents to our area,” said Pierce. “We have just completed construction of a 10,000 square foot hangar/office to complement our facilities.”
Over the next five to 10 years, county officials also hope their coastal location and the determination of residents to see growth will lure new business to the area.
“We have lost some businesses, but we have gained others. The spirit of entrepreneurship in this country never ceases to amaze me, nor does the government’s ability to put every obstacle they can in the way of small businesses surviving,” said Pierce. “This is a time in which we need to believe in each other and understand more than ever, that we have to work together to overcome the problems. The key word is work, and small businesses are our major employers in every town and city in America.”
Franklin County By The Numbers
(Fiscal Year 2010–2011)
Total Budget: $42,354,108
Millage Rate: 4.3511
Ad Valorem Property
Tax Proceeds: $8,951,286