Maybe it wouldn’t be the first thing to come to mind when thinking about rebuilding an economy.

But researchers at the University of West Florida believe a spotlight on the heritage of the Florida Panhandle could certainly provide fuel.

The 11th in a series of planning meetings with a goal toward earning designation as the Florida Panhandle Maritime Heritage Area was recently held in Port St. Joe, with a host of stakeholders, some from as far away as Marianna, participating.

The planning meetings, in a process not unlike that undertaken to put a historic property on the National Register of Historic Places, culminates in a feasibility study and management plan.

An application would be submitted to the U.S. Park Service and Department of Interior for approval and then forwarded to Congress for the final designation.

The process hinges on support and input from stakeholders in the public and private sectors, researchers said.

In large measure, it rests on building a bandwagon and getting all aboard.

“This area has so much to offer,” said Sorna Khakzad, a researcher with the University of West Florida Public Archaeology Network and the Askew Institute for Multidisciplinary Research.

“There is so much to be done to highlight these assets that not many know about.”

According to Khakzad, National Heritage Areas are places where historic, cultural and natural resources mix to form nationally-important landscapes.

They hare not national parks, but lived-in spaces and communities are encouraged and emboldened to collaborate to determine how to make use of assets at hand.

Designation does not impact property ownership nor impose new regulations.

But, here is the key part for an area dealt a blow by Hurricane Michael: the designation brings recurring federal funding and support from the National Park Service.

According to an informational slideshow, the 55 NHAs nationwide created $12.9 billion in economic impact, resulting in $1.2 billion in taxes and 148,000 jobs.

FEMA has taken notice, providing several hundred thousand dollars to the Department of the Interior to support the project.

The Askew Institute is funding the feasibility study.

“This is remarkable opportunity,” said John Russell, a representative of FEMA’s Community Recovery Assistance division. “This could bring the best single long-term impact on the economy we could have.

“There are few areas in the country (where the NHA designation) could actually make a huge difference.”

A 2016-2018 study out of the UWF highlighted the array of assets across the Panhandle, including 14 counties, and those who live in the area would likely be able tick off more than a handful.

The proposed application intends to align with connecting “rivers, seas and land,” Khakzad said.

As an opening statement, she noted that the area includes one of the few biological hotspots in the country.

There are eight major rivers, most prominently the Apalachicola.

And the Panhandle’s location along the northern Gulf Coast and the presence of so many harbors made this marginal land environment for settlers worth returning to for travelers of days gone by, said Dr. John Wirth with the University of West Florida.

In addition to that human resilience in a hostile land, the Panhandle has extensive links to the military and national defense, innovation (air conditioning) and industry.

The goal of the feasibility study, which will be crafted after one more meeting in Jackson County, is to connect that past with the present, Khakzad said.

“We are branding an area of the state so we can market it,” said Gerald Smith, a volunteer on the project. “A national designation … is huge.”

And it will not happen overnight, which should come as no surprise to any observer of national government.

The last NHA required nine years from planning meetings to act of Congress and the bulk of the heavy lifting is academic.

But the message from the planning meeting was get involved, act like an “NHA before you are an NHA” and lend any and all public support to the project.

“It does take community support, a significant amount of community support,” Smith added.

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