The St George Island Civic Club, now 400 members strong, has a long history of volunteerism with a focus on improvements to the island and fundraising activities for countywide needs. The club also serves as a forum for discussion and information sharing of issues that impact island residents and homeowners.
This year the civic club embraced the task of coordinating the development of a citizen-driven, wide ranging community redevelopment plan that will promote and position the island as a unique, attractive, vibrant, and economically prosperous community. This project is in response to Franklin County Business District Overlay Ordinance 2018-02 adopted earlier this year, which placed additional regulations on private properties within the island’s commercial area, and laid out the vision articulated above. The timing is also tied to the current infusion of state and federal grant dollars for Gulf Coast counties resulting from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
The goal of the planning effort of “SGI 2025,” a working title chosen by the civic club, is to identify improvements that will preserve the natural beauty and ecology of the island while providing recommendations for managed economic development and positive growth.
How projects were selected for the plan
In early 2018, after the overlay was adopted, the club sought volunteers to serve on a 20-member infrastructure committee to collect ideas, provide research, and develop a plan for capital improvements. After months of meetings, trips to other communities to view facilities or meet with officials, tours by state and federal government granting agencies, the committee recommended these categories of projects:
Improvements to basic infrastructure, within the business district, to address problems associated with traffic congestion, flooding, and safety, including the need for making the island center more appealing and navigable by pedestrians. Additional parking spaces, away from the Franklin Blvd/Gulf Beach Drive intersections, were considered critical to reducing the overcrowding and illegal parking that characterize this area on any sunny day.
Improvements to existing venues within the island center that are inadequate or unsafe to increase serviceability, usefulness and attractiveness. Obvious examples the committee identified include the boat launch area, fishing pier and Lighthouse Park restrooms, and the shoreline on both sides of the causeway leading from Franklin Blvd to the base of the bridge.
Improvements related to “quality of life” and “livability.” Successful communities provide settings for outdoor activities and opportunities for socialization that nurture community spirit and bring citizens together. The selections for recreational features were chosen specifically for their quiet, “laid back” nature, suitable for our island. The “inclusive” shaded playground, with appropriate surfacing, welcomes all children, even those with disabilities who today could not navigate the sand of our current play equipment. Our health-conscious people can enjoy a welcoming fitness circuit trail with shade and restrooms nearby. The community center is a gathering place overlooking the Gulf for folks to participate in recreational, educational, and cultural citizen events. In addition, the structure can be revenue producing when rented for weddings and other private functions.
How comments are being gathered
The infrastructure committee report to the membership took the form of a website www.SGI2025.com that went live this summer. The website contains a comment section so that civic club members, as well as the general public, can react to the concepts and individual projects. The committee will tabulate the responses, make changes to the proposal based on those comments, and present a final version for a civic club membership vote this fall.
Input was also solicited through announcements to organizations such as homeowner associations, the Island Business Association, and “SGI Forward,” a communication tool that keeps islanders abreast of issues; posters requesting comment placed in prominent locations within island businesses; meetings and workshops with small groups; announcements on the radio and Facebook; and a presentation to the county commissioners.
How much support is necessary?
It would be wonderful to have unanimous support, and we hope the openness of the process will help us reach a broad consensus and compromise. But civic club members are realistic. The bottom line question in any community reliant on tourism for its economy is “When is it too much?” We know some islanders fear any improvements will bring unwanted change and attract more people to the area. And, in fact, making the island more appealing is, obviously, part of the design. We believe, however, that these citizen-chosen improvements are more suitable to the island than the commercial enterprises that might develop from a for-profit perspective.
The history of the island includes past “engagements” over large-scale development, but the protection of the environment over commercialism always prevailed. As long as this barrier island and its surrounding waters are considered by national, state, and local authorities as important for the ecosystem, it will remain this unique, low-density community. But we all must be diligent. If our citizens stay informed and involved, we can shape the future. We are counting on involved citizens participating every year as the SGI2025 individual project grants are prepared to ensure we are doing what is necessary to retain the identify of St George Island.
What are next steps and timeline?
If civic club members approve the plan after edits by the committee and the board, the concepts will become the basis of grant requests to the county. County commissioners must give their approval for any grant requests because they are the legal entity representing St George Island. The commissioners will guide the choice of projects and the timelines, although we hope to spread the construction of projects over the life of the oil spill grant funding, seven to 10 years. The county will decide the design firms and construction companies through its procurement process. The facilities, which are to be located on public land, will be under the control of the county for maintenance and upkeep in cooperation with other government agencies.
Other significant elements
At this time, the civic club leadership is in discussion with other communities within the county with the goal of partnering on mainland projects to improve the prosperity of the entire area. For example, an expansion of high-speed internet can bring employment opportunities to county residents desiring to work for one of the hundreds of national companies that use remote workers today. It may provide more opportunities for our young professionals to return home to live and work. Expansion of broadband can also make this coastal area appealing for relocation by professionals who bring remote jobs with them as they settle here. Finally, such broadband to the homes of Franklin County students will open up greater educational opportunities and interaction with the world. We invite all interested parties to reach out to us on this economic development possibility. And we welcome partnerships with other communities and entities for the greater good of the county.
James Donald, president of the St. George Island Civic Club, prepared this overview with great thought and input of Infrastructure Committee Chair Mike O'Connell, subcommittee members and Civic Club members. You can join in the effort by reading this website and providing your comments www.sgi2025.com