HOLT — Ronnie Watts remembers enjoying Cokes and moon pies from a store in Holt when he was a youngster.
Today, the 70-year-old owner of JRW Investments in Crestview owns the two-story former store building, which he rents to residential tenants. The member of Niceville High School’s first graduating class in 1966 also owns about 3,000 acres in the Crestview and Holt area.
Watts plans to soon open an RV campground northeast of Interstate 10 and Log Lake Road in Holt, an unincorporated hamlet with about 3,000 residents a dozen miles west of Crestview on U.S. Highway 90. About a decade ago, he acquired the former Holt School building, which he eventually might turn into a community center.
“Holt will probably have to grow much larger before that happens,” Watts said.
He expresses more excitement about an idea he’s had for more than a decade. It’s one that, if turned into reality, could relieve traffic congestion in and near Crestview and help motorists from several other areas as well.
Watts says heavy traffic on State Road 85 and Interstate 10 in the Crestview area could be greatly reduced if the Air Force would make Range Road 236 an unrestricted public road.
The south end of the two-lane, partially-paved RR 236 runs off Lewis Turner Boulevard on the north side of Fort Walton Beach. It’s also near the Fort Walton Beach Golf Club, where Watts and his brother, Edwin, helped open the first Edwin Watts Golf Shop in 1968.
From its south end, which is about three miles west of the four-lane SR 85, the range road crosses Eglin Air Force Base property, running past Camp Rudder and several other military training areas on its way toward the Holt area. Local bicyclists who have an Eglin recreation permit enjoy pedaling a long stretch of the range road near Lewis Turner Boulevard because there are few automobiles.
In his Crestview office, Watts recently walked to a map on a wall and moved his finger over a line representing the range road, most of which runs in a northwest direction.
“By taking 85, you’re going 20 miles out of the way to get to Holt,” said Watts, who added that a full-access RR 236 could serve as an official hurricane evacuation route.
His son, James, recalled driving on the range road as Hurricane Opal approached in 1995.
James Watts said he was able to travel on it up to Rattlesnake Bluff Road, which he then took east toward Crestview.
“People were stuck on 85,” he said. “I was in Crestview in 15 to 20 minutes.”
Ronnie Watts realizes there are many major challenges to making the range road open for everyone.
To connect to Log Lake Road in Holt, a bridge would have to be built over the Yellow River, replacing the span that became impassable decades ago. Also, a roughly 2-mile section of road would have to be built just south of the river, and much of the existing range road would have to be paved, Watts said.
A few years ago, a local contractor estimated it would cost about $12 million to $14 million to make Watts’ dream come true.
That’s much cheaper, Watts noted, than the Okaloosa County-led, estimated $200 million southwest Crestview bypass project, which includes construction of a new I-10 interchange and is expected to decrease traffic on SR 85.
Holt already has its own interchange, where I-10 meets Log Lake Road, Watts said.
He said he has occasionally talked to county officials about his hopes for RR 236.
“They refer it to Eglin, and Eglin says it will impact the mission,” Watts said.
When asked what the Air Force thinks of Watts’ idea, Eglin spokeswoman Ilka Cole replied in an email Thursday that the general public already has access to RR 236 as long as there is no mission activity going on and they have an Eglin recreation permit.
She said RR 236 is paved from Lewis Turner Boulevard to just north of Range Road 213, which is in the middle of the range.
Air Force officials believe the old bridge over the Yellow River was built in 1927 and officially closed in 1960, “but the public kept using it until the wooden structure/deck became impassable,” Cole said.
County Public Works Director Jason Autrey said the idea of turning RR 236 into an unrestricted public road has been floating around for years.
“He did not come up with that idea,” Autrey said of Watts. “That idea has been in place for a long time, (but Eglin officials) always worry about mission impact.”
He expressed strong doubts about the $12 million to $14 million estimated cost to make RR 236 an unrestricted road.
“The bridge alone would cost more than $12 million,” Autrey said.