A new study suggests Carrabelle’s future is tied to tourism and elder care.

A study of Carrabelle’s economy, funded by the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO), recommends converting vacant condominiums into assisted living units and updating business district zoning.

At Carrabelle’s Aug. 1 city meeting, Ray Greer, representing Stantec Consulting, Inc., and Bruce Lyon of Swan Development Advisors, a subcontractor to Stantec, spoke on the city’s demographics and economy and made recommendations for future development based on the DEO study.

The study deals with the entire 32322 zip code, rather than just incorporated Carrabelle. Greer said Stantec collected information from numerous sources, including a March 14 public workshop led by Lyon, an economist, and attended by more than 20 Carrabelle residents.

Lyon began by explaining that two industries that traditionally fueled Carrabelle’s economy, construction and commercial fishing, are both in decline. He said Carrabelle must broaden its economic base and could expand on its third traditional industry, tourism, through rezoning and changes to the city’s business culture.

But, the study said, the make-up of Carrabelle’s population poses special challenges to economic development.

In spite of the fact the number of Carrabelle adults of prime childbearing age, 25 to 34, is 26 percent higher than the state average and 15 percent higher than the national average, the study said Carrabelle is somewhat older than the state and nation.

It said Carrabelle has a median age of 42.3 versus Florida’s 39.8, and the national median age of 35.6 years. The number of Carrabelle’s youth, up to age 17, is more than 30 percent below the state average and about 40 percent below national average.

The study warns that, as the population grows older, the average income in the city could decline further.

Stantec found the level of education in Carrabelle is well below the national average, with almost twice as many high school dropouts. The number of residents who completed a bachelor’s degree is about a quarter of the national average.

Lyon and Greer suggested the development of career academies within the public school system to teach youngsters skills, such as hospitality, nursing and marine mechanics, that would be useful in local businesses. They also supported partnering with Gulf Coast State College and Tallahassee Community College to the same end. Better preparation for available jobs could encourage young people to remain in Carrabelle, they said.

Lyon said the high percentage of real estate owned by nonresidents poses a problem for Carrabelle. According to the county appraiser’s office, 35 percent of the homes and businesses in Carrabelle are owned by out-of-state banks or individuals, roughly half of them located in Tallahassee. Of the 159 parcels in the corridor along US 98, 110 were owned by out of towners.

“How can you control your economic development when you don’t control your own real estate?” Greer asked. He said nonresident owners are likely to be less invested in local issues.

Zoning also affects development. The study found that a disproportionately large portion of Carrabelle is zoned commercial, especially north of US 98. Lyon said this could discourage investors. The study suggests creating a hospitality district, making it easy for visitors to find lodging, shop, dine and engage in tourist activities like kayaking and fishing. It said the natural beauty of Carrabelle and the surrounding area provides an ideal setting for nature based tourism.

The study also said all businesses need to accept credit cards.

Stantec found that Carrabelle’s tourist trade currently drops 50 to 60 percent during the winter and recommended advertising in cold weather locations like Canada and the northern US. “Carrabelle is colder than South Florida but it’s a lot warmer here than in Quebec,” said Lyon.

Stantec recommends the city retain an experienced marketing firm to target both day-trippers year round and snowbirds who make extended visits during the winter months.

The study found conflicting information from different websites about the area can be confusing. “At a minimum all the county and city websites should reference each other and be kept up to date and relevant,” said the report.

The study said downtown businesses must learn to promote one another. “Currently, there does not appear to be an organized connection between the charter fishing industry, nature-based tourism, or ecotourism, with the hospitality industry,” it said. “The ideal situation would be for a company or organization to bring the various businesses together to promote tourism in a manner that showcases all parts of the industry and connects them so that each component promotes another.”

Stantec recommends improving the entryway to Carrabelle from the east, “with signage, monuments, lighting and similar streetscape enhancements,” and requiring landscaping be maintained to high standards. It suggests laws be put into place governing the appearance of commercial signs.

The Moore house is envisioned as an anchor for the tourist and business district.

While some types of retail categories, such as gasoline and food service, are found to be “fully served,” a general store is highlighted as a business opportunity for an experienced retailer.

 “It appears that there is insufficient space in the retail market for multiple new stores,” reads the study. “The data does appear to reveal a market opportunity for what we might term a ‘general store’ (which) could support the community and visitors, in a number of product areas including clothing, home furnishings, sundries, appliances, sporting goods and with a variety of rental opportunities for tourists like bikes, fishing gear, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and similar.”

Stantec also recommends Carrabelle investigate aquaculture as an industry.

The study said Carrabelle’s many vacant condominiums could become an asset if they are converted to assisted living units, which it said would create many jobs and boost the economy as a whole.

Based on input during the public workshop, residents said Carrabelle’s assets are access to outdoor activities and natural beauty, the waterfront and barrier islands, seafood, lack of pollution and traffic, and historic resources like the lighthouse and museums.

Residents said they would like to see more jobs and shopping resources; an increase in ecotourism and RV travelers; access to technology; end of life care and affordable accessible healthcare.

St. George Island, Wal-Mart, Apalachicola, Wakulla County, Port St. Joe, the Asian seafood industry, and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were all perceived as competition during the workshop.