What will our little beach community look like in 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? Of course, only time will tell. But here are 10 of our predictions for the future of Scenic Highway 30A.
1. Ecotourism will become 30A’s signature calling card.
If you want go-kart tracks, water slides, laser tag or goofy golf, you’ll need to look elsewhere. 30A’s diverse menu of activities will continue to be driven by wholesome family fun and ecotourism. YOLO Boarding across calm coastal dune lakes. Slow boat cruises up the pristine Choctawhatchee River. Guided nature walks and horseback tours through Point Washington State Forest. Leisure bike rides with the tots along 30A’s 18-mile path. Snorkeling across thriving artificial reefs. Surf and skim-boarding camps. Guided deep and fresh water fishing excursions. Water skiing and wake-board lessons. These are the types of activities that will continue to lure guests back to 30A. In fact, this multitude of outdoor and family-friendly activities is precisely what differentiates us from virtually every other beach destination in the United States. It’s a precious natural asset that few other places possess — and none can ever regain. Sustainable year-round ecotourism needs to become our local battle cry.
2. Freeport will explode.
South Walton is essentially a very narrow strip of land, sandwiched between the Gulf of Mexico and Choctawhatchee Bay. With over 40 percent of the land here being protected State Park or Forest — and most major parcels of developable land already being spoken for — there’s simply not a whole lot of room left to grow. With the bustle of Destin bumping up against us to the west and Panama City Beach on the east, there’s only one way to expand — north. And with the new 331 bridge expansion project already underway (due to be completed in the summer of 2016), it’s clear that the 331 corridor north of the bridge is poised for explosive growth. Apartment complexes, restaurants, shopping plazas, movie theaters, gas stations, bay-front communities, golf courses, campgrounds and hotels. We expect all of these things to start taking shape north of the bay. Freeport will continue to be a place that many locals call home, especially all of the countless hospitality professionals who will be required to support 30A’s thriving tourism-based economy. Freeport will become the place that many of us live, work and play, and supporting such a large population of professionals will require building many new living and entertainment options for them to enjoy.
3. St. Joe will forge a new ‘Gateway to 30A.’
Following a huge land liquidation late last year, St. Joe now has the money (some $560 million in cash), the land, and the vision to create upscale communities along a new road that will eventually extend all the way from Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport directly to Scenic Highway 30A. In fact, St. Joe recently outlined their 50-year plans for the 110,000-acre region, which lies mostly to the north and east of 30A. Their plan includes the development of “pocketed residential communities” and commercial town centers that primarily cater to retirees and active adults. During the first ten years alone in Walton County, they’re planning to build over 5,000 new residential units, and a total of 24,706 units over a 50-year period. Plus, they’re planning on 500 new hotel rooms, 81 holes of golf and 322,000 square feet for recreation development. Like other St. Joe properties, we predict that these new developments will be attractive and well-planned, and will provide year-round “beyond the beach” activities for locals and visitors alike.
4. Alys Beach will become one of the most talked-about towns on the planet.
There’s no disputing the fact that Alys Beach is a visual feast unlike any other. When completed over the next couple of decades, Alys Beach (at 158 acres) will be twice the size of nearby Seaside (80 acres), and it will also be significantly larger than Rosemary Beach‘s 107 acres. Not only is the town of Alys Beach perched on one of the world’s most beautiful beaches (like all of our other 30A communities), its stunning stark white architecture and world-class urban design will establish Alys Beach as one of the most studied, researched, photographed and talked about small towns in the world.
“I think people will really love Alys Beach more and more as it builds out,” said Mark Schnell of Schnell Urban Design. “They are still so early in the process. I don’t think people yet conceptualize how large, unusual, beautiful, and interesting it will be.”
5. World-class planning will largely solve our traffic issues.
The free shuttle service recently launched by Sunshine Shuttle serves as a first baby step toward addressing 30A’s overall traffic challenges. The new shuttle service will hopefully succeed and expand, adding new routes and infrastructure each year. That said, more steps will clearly need to be taken as this area continues to encounter unprecedented growth. We predict that eventually the primary “feeder roads” to Scenic Highway 30A (i.e., County Roads 393, 83, 283, 395, etc.) will be gated, limiting automative access to local residents with special permits. Satellite parking areas will be established for visitors along the Highway 98 corridor. There’ll be a Seaside parking lot, a WaterColor lot, a Gulf Place lot, a Rosemary Beach lot etc., and shuttles will efficiently whisk guests away to their accommodations, where walking, bicycles, electric carts, pedicabs, and trams will become the primary means of transportation.
Down the line (pun only slightly intended), there might even be an electric rail that quickly and quietly connects all of our 30A communities together.
While such changes might sound dramatic and outlandish, clearly an innovative long-term plan will be necessary to adequately address the unprecedented growth that’s predicted for this area. And just think how cool it will be to see 30A bustling with beach bikes, trams, pedicabs and pedestrians, rather than bumper-to-bumper cars stacked up at every intersection. Just like what our community has accomplished with New Urbanism, we now have a remarkable opportunity to show the rest of the world precisely how to manage rapid growth through proper long-term vision and planning. 30A has a continued opportunity to serve as the role-model for how daily life should be.
6. “Downtown” Santa Rosa Beach will take shape along Highway 331.
While everything with a 32459 Zip Code technically falls within the realm known as Santa Rosa Beach, the actual “town” has always been an evasive creature (it was first established in 1910 along Hogtown Bayou on Highway 393 North). But with so many civic buildings already in place along the short stretch between Highway 98 and the 331 bridge (the South Walton Courthouse, The Chamber of Commerce, the TDC, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office, South Walton High School, the Coastal Branch Library, the community college campus, etc.), this corridor may eventually become Santa Rosa Beach’s Main Street. Watch for public parks, restaurants, and shopping options to sprout up in the surrounding areas. This important civic corridor will become the primary “Gateway to 30A” and will be intelligently and tastefully designed to welcome all guests into the National Park-like South Walton experience.
7. At least two of 30A’s signature events will become major national draws.
Scenic Highway 30A is blessed to be home to so many wonderful festivals and events, but two in particular have the potential to become significant global draws. Because of our proximity to major music hubs such as Nashville and Atlanta, the 30A Songwriters Festival will only continue to grow in popularity and reputation. It will continue to be a festival where big names, up-and-comers and local talents can share the same small stage, and create moments of pure magic together. Word of that synergistic magic will attract music fans from across the U.S. Also, because of its extraordinary visual nature and its unique technological twist, Digital Graffiti at Alys Beach has the potential to attract curious visitors from all corners of the globe. Watch the Digital Graffiti concept go viral when it finally becomes “discovered” by Silicon Valley moguls. Major companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Sony, Panasonic and many others might ultimately descend here once each year to showcase their latest home technologies, against a stunning natural and architectural backdrop like no other.
8. Choctawhatchee Bay will become an important attraction.
While Destin and Panama City both have passes into the Gulf of Mexico, South Walton has never really evolved into a strong boating community, largely due its lack of direct Gulf access. That said, Sandestin is rumored to have plans for expanding its 113-slip marina, which is already at capacity. And the marina at La Grange Bayou in Freeport just keeps growing every season. It will grow even more if Freeport develops as fast as we predict. When St. Joe begins to develop communities along its gorgeous intracoastal property, you can rest assured that more and more boating enthusiasts will be found taking advantage of Choctawhatchee Bay’s spectacular 129 square miles. Fishing, skiing, wake boarding, ecotours, standup paddling, kayaking, and even dockside dining: The bay has it all. Choctawhatchee Bay will become an important “beyond the beach” draw, and eventually, we predict that many visitors will come here to take advantage of the bay’s activities, while barely setting foot on 30A’s white sand beaches.
9. More full-time locals = more civic amenities.
More and more people are moving to 30A permanently. Not just retirees settling in for that stereotypical Florida retirement, but young families armed with high-paying mobile careers. The recent advancements in mobile technology finally enable many executives and entrepreneurs to conduct their business literally from anywhere in the world. And for many, there’s no finer place in the world to be than the beaches found along Scenic Highway 30A. (Having the new ECP airport nearby doesn’t hurt either.) As more and more people decide to make South Walton their full-time residence, more amenities will be required to support their families. Cultural centers. Sports complexes. Excellent schools. Public parks. Public swimming pools. It’s all inevitable. It’s all coming. It’s happening now.
10. Through it all, 30A will retain its charm and authenticity.
No one likes change. But of course, as the saying goes, change is the only constant. You can either fear it and gripe about it, or you can thoughtfully anticipate change and work to shape it in ways that can make the future even better than the past. We all owe a huge debt of gratitude to the local visionaries who sought to protect some 40 percent of our local land. What incredible foresight they blessed us with! We’re also grateful to 30A’s pioneering developers, such as Robert and Daryl Davis of Seaside. They could have simply slapped up 20-story condos, strip malls and water slides, like virtually every other beachfront developer. Instead, they opted to do something extraordinary; something thoughtful and deliberate. We also owe gratitude to the county planners and administrators who had the courage to limit all buildings in Walton County to a maximum height of 50′, ensuring that our beaches (and bay) don’t become overshadowed by towering monoliths. And, we’re so grateful for all of our local artisans, chefs, musicians and entrepreneurs, who are now expertly practicing their craft — doing their collective best to keep 30A fun, funky and oh-so-authentic.
At the end of the day, it’s not simply the beach that makes 30A so extraordinary.
After all, beautiful beaches can be found throughout the panhandle and beyond. What makes 30A so special is the people who have decided to call this place home. It’s the sense of community and local pride that we all share as residents and guests. If we work together, we can absolutely shape our own future and ensure that our home forever retains its natural beauty, its local charm and its authenticity — no matter what the winds of change might blow across these sugary white shores.