Growing Into Its Own

Wakulla County, FL
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

The Wakulla County Economic Development Council is one of the few entirely non-profit economic development organizations in the state of Florida. It was re-established three years ago to revitalize the region and to raise awareness to the potential of the county and its 240 acre industrial park in the Northeast section of the County.
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Currently, the largest employer in the county is St. Marks Powder which employs approximately 375 people. This leading manufacturer of commercial and defense propellants is a major supplier for the United States Armed Forces. For over forty years, it has hired many residents in Wakulla County, adding significantly to the community offering its children a place to work without leaving home.

Many companies believe that having a four-lane highway running through the area is crucial for operating a business. Although the county does not have such an asset, St. Marks Powder has proved that companies can still flourish with a two-lane highway. However, the main route through the county running north to south is about to be widened to a four-lane highway beginning in 2018-2019 – “improving mobility throughout our County, fostering new business, and boosting our economy,” says John Shuff, president of the Wakulla County Economic Development Council. This new four-lane highway will directly connect with Tallahassee, just 17 miles to the north. Tallahassee, besides being the state capital, has two large hospitals, two universities, a community college, and a private college.

The biggest challenge for the economic development council is changing people’s perception of the area. Wakulla County, while serving as a bedroom community to the state capital Tallahassee, also seeks to diversify its economy through the development of two existing industrial parks and has developed a website, wakullaedc.com, for this purpose.

Opportunity Park is a 240-acre planned unit development (PUD), zoned for light Industrial use. The development process for this park has been streamlined. After a six-person review committee decides if the building project is a good fit for Opportunity Park the next step is to immediately apply for a building permit without normally required public meetings.

The second park is St. Marks Innovation Park, located on the St Marks River, and includes 55 acres zoned for light industrial and has a municipal dock on the river giving access to the Gulf of Mexico.

Wakulla County has a large workforce with a very low unemployment rate, because sixty-five percent of its citizens commute to Tallahassee for work every day. This workforce would certainly change jobs to be closer to home under similar employment conditions.

Wakulla’s Economic Development Council currently has two seats on the board for Career Source Capital Region, a Florida-wide workforce development organization that teaches people how to use a computer properly, how to write a resume, fill out applications, where to look for the right training and much more. It is a one-stop-shop for anyone looking for assistance with finding employment and is an excellent resource for employers looking for workers.

Keep Wakulla County Beautiful (KWCB) is a non-profit organization that works with the county to educate citizens about litter reduction, recycling and sustainability and attracts many passionate volunteers. “We have a lot of people down here that don’t mind pitching in and helping to get stuff done, just like it was about fifty years ago. Once a year, several hundred people work together all over the county, picking up trash along the roadways and coastline to keep the county clean, attractive and safe.” This effort is maintained all year by co-operation between KWCB members, the County staff, and Sheriff’s department.

The county considers itself to be the forgotten coast of Florida but finds that it is being discovered for its remarkable attractions. Eighty-five percent of its coastline is owned by St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge, which allows the pristine condition of the shorelines to be maintained. This preservation creates the perfect place for fishing in Florida, the sport fishing capital of the world.

With the amount of freshwater in the area – slow rivers and calm bays – kayaking is a popular sport and is often combined with fishing. There are designated kayaking trails with camping sites along the way for long kayaking adventures. The river swamps and The Apalachicola National Forest, containing over a half million acres, are great areas for hunting, another favorite activity for residents and tourists.

Wakulla County is remarkably well preserved with approximately seventy-four percent of the County being owned by either the federal or state government in the form of wildlife management areas, wilderness areas, national forest, state parks and other public land designations.

Wakulla Springs State Park is a special gem; it is the home of the deepest and largest freshwater springs in the world, measured by output volume. Wakulla has over 30 clear springs and sinks that are diveable and offer visibility up to 100 feet under water, creating a diver’s paradise. There are roughly 27 Outstanding Florida Waters in the state of Florida, and three of them are located here in Wakulla County.

The Florida Department of Transportation is currently installing a seventy-mile bicycle trail that is eight feet wide and will circumnavigate the county and tie into Tallahassee trails. “We look forward to the increased tourism and enhanced quality of life for Wakulla’s residents. If you’re the type of person that likes the outdoors, you just about can’t find a better place to be!”

Wakulla County School Board has applied for funds to increase its career and technical programs to move toward training the future workforce in Air Conditioning Service. Wakulla County currently has Automotive, Welding, TV Production, Digital and Web Design, Culinary Arts, Engineering, and Certified Nursing Assistants programs, with several students graduating with certificates they can use to immediately enter their chosen field or attend a career and technical school with articulated credit. “Wakulla County School Board feels that a college education is important, but we need to have a diversified workforce; all trades are an important part of our everyday lives, and our whole country has ignored these critical areas for a couple of decades now.” Over 600 industry certifications were earned by Wakulla students in the 16/17 school year.

Wakulla’s school system also prides itself on our outstanding college bound students. In the Capital region, comprising Leon, Wakulla, and Gadsden counties, 12 students graduated from high school in 2017, with their two-year AA degree from Tallahassee Community College. Eight of those students were from Wakulla County while the population is ten times smaller than Leon County.

Wakulla County Schools are ranked third among the 67 school districts in the state. Wakulla also achieved a Silver Medal rating in 2017 for all public high schools, according to US News and World Report. It received a grant a few years ago to run fiber optic cables to every school building in the county; “while this was great for our school children, this infrastructure allowed for fiber optic connectivity options for business throughout most of the county.”

Tallahassee Community College (TCC) has been an exceptional resource and partner for Wakulla County over the years, and lately, it opened the Wakulla Environmental Institute (WEI) in Wakulla. The goal of the institute is to market the county as a destination that combines education, conservation and recreation in a unique way. WEI has plans to train forest rangers, forest fire fighters, park managers and other environmental positions for the entire state of Florida.

WEI has fostered an oyster aquaculture program that not only helps keep the coastal waters clean, but also is helping to turn oyster fishermen into farmers, as traditional gathering methods have been in decline for years. The Tallahassee Community College is one of the larger Community colleges in Florida, and the students in Wakulla County also have access to Florida State University and Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in Tallahassee.

Wakulla County is surrounded by pristine beaches and freshwater springs. The quality of life has always been high. “Citizens who commute to Tallahassee for work have a reasonably good household income and experience a low cost of living; in fact, many of our citizens moved here because the cost of living was less than in Tallahassee.”

One of the main incentives of our Economic Council is to provide the younger generation the option to stay in their hometown to work, and raise their own family after they finish with school. “The people that live here value our traditional way of life; we cherish strong family bonds and want to see extended families flourish here. Wakulla County is finding its footing as it endeavors to be much more than a bedroom community to Tallahassee.”

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