After failed attempts in 2006 and 2014, this time Jonathan Cole has stepped up to lead a third charge to incorporate Navarre.

NAVARRE — Old timers recall that on the stretch of U.S. Highway 98 between Fort Walton Beach and Pensacola nothing existed. No gas stations. No stores. No restaurants. No nothing.

Now this bedroom community, once nothing but palmettos, scrub oaks and cattle, boasts all of those things and more.

Like any growing community, it wants a say in its future. Many of the more than 42,000 residents in this census-designated Gulf Coast town want to strike out on their own.

After failed attempts in 2006 and 2014, this time Jonathan Cole has stepped up to lead a third charge to incorporate Navarre.

“It’s like the Wild West,” Cole said while sitting at a table at TC’s Front Porch, Navarre’s oldest commercial building that sits in the town’s center and once served as the Double G gas station.

“If we made decisions locally instead of in Milton, this would be a different place right now,” he added.

It would likely have a U.S. 98 bypass, more shopping, a movie theater and other entertainment options, a technology park, defense contractors and a variety of other companies.

It would also have a master plan to better map its rapid growth. Navarre has accounted for 25% of the county’s growth since 2010 and projects to add another 20,000 people by 2045.

“We joke that whenever you see a lot clearing you get excited, but it turns out to be something we already have an abundance of: car washes, Dollar Stores or storage units,” said Cole, head of Navarre Area United PAC.

The area’s natural beauty draws many residents to live here and tourists who visit.

It serves as Santa Rosa County’s only access to the popular sugary white beaches in Northwest Florida. Navarre Beach occupies a four-mile stretch of Santa Rosa Island — the longest barrier island in the Panhandle. It stretches 44 miles from the Pensacola Pass to the Destin Pass.

It attracted Cole and his wife, Ashley, to move to Navarre in 1989. They have two adult children they raised there: son Tyler and daughter Chandler.

“We do love Navarre,” Cole said. “Like a lot of others, we want what’s best for our children. The only way that will happen is if we do it ourselves.”

Navarre leaders who have pushed the idea for years and led other major campaigns, such as winning the vote to allow alcohol sales in Santa Rosa County in 2005, tapped Cole to lead the controversial incorporation issue this time.

It was tried in 2006 but the effort failed because of the recession, said Bart Pullum, a Navarre real estate broker who manages Pullum Real Estate. Pullum was part of that fact-finding mission.

The issue also failed in the 2014 general election 56% to 44%, with just two of Navarre's six precincts supporting the measure.

Only 11 cities have incorporated since the year 2000, with Westlake, located on the east coast of Florida near Palm Beach, the last one to do so in 2017.

“It’s a tough, uphill battle,” Pullum said. “Done right, it could be great for the community.”

Cole has entered the effort knowing he might have to bleed to get the issue passed. Although optimistic, he also knows the process takes a long time.

One of the first things he said must be done is to educate people who live in Navarre before it begins canvassing neighborhoods to collect about 2,500 petitions. It must collect 8% of the registered voters as of July 1 in each of the six Navarre precincts (26, 29, 34, 35, 38 and 40) to have a non-binding referendum placed on election ballot next year.

The issue failed in the 2014 general election 56% to 44% with just two of the six precincts supporting the measure. Only 11 cities have incorporated since the year 2000, with Westlake, located on the east coast of Florida near Palm Beach, the last one to do so in 2017.

“People think we’re going to build a huge glass building, but that’s not the reality,” Cole said of the PAC. “We would probably rent a storefront.”

It plans to educate the public by holding several town hall meetings and gather input from locals, Cole said. Other things on his and the Navarre Area United PAC list include conducting a feasibility study. Once that is done, the Santa Rosa County Commission has agreed it would put incorporation on the Aug. 25, 2020, primary election ballot as a non-binding referendum.

The so-called straw poll must pass by 60% plus one — no easy feat — before the state legislative delegation would consider filing a bill in the Florida House and Senate that allows Navarre to seek incorporation. Finally, it must then go back on the Santa Rosa County ballot for voters to decide its fate.

Chuck Pohlman, who led the successful fight for liquor sales in the county, said he’s “optimistic” Navarre will become a city. He pointed out the PAC had its first public meeting July 12 with a Navarre chamber.

“I don’t think the people were ready for it yet” in 2014, Pohlman said. “We’re trying to keep this as positive as we possibly can. I’m for it. I think we should have it.”

Cole does, too. He pointed out one reason for it is that right now Navarre residents have one county commissioner — Dave Piech — they can go to if they have an idea or request. Residents would have a lot more representatives on a Navarre city council to approach who would likely be more receptive, Cole said.

He said another layer of government would be worth it, given the progress Navarre residents would reap under local leadership.

“Navarre really has no organized voice,” Cole said. “We’re like a rudderless aircraft carrier that doesn’t have any direction right now.”