By Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal
On a relatively barren stretch of Avalon Boulevard, just less than two miles from the busy U.S. 90 intersection, land clearing has begun at the site of the new Santa Rosa County courthouse.
It's a project 20 years in the making, one that's been heralded as a major upgrade from the current judicial center complex in downtown Milton, a building that's approaching 100 years old.
But it's also seen as an important step forward in the economic development of Avalon Boulevard, which has struggled to attract new businesses even after an ambitious widening and infrastructure project wrapped up in 2016.
"I guess they thought once the construction was done, everyone was going to flock to Avalon," said Ken Dowell, owner of Ken's Paint and Body Shop, which sits on Avalon Boulevard directly across from where the new courthouse is being built. "But you've got to have something to make people want to build here. I was told a long time ago by a buddy that he sees Avalon becoming the next Davis Highway interchange. There's a plan somewhere, and this courthouse is going to be big for this area."
Existing businesses like Dowell's have big hopes that the new courthouse is going to be the anchor that drives business development in the Avalon Boulevard corridor. And the county is banking on it as well.
A study commissioned in 2017 found that, demographically speaking, the center of Santa Rosa County is within two miles of the Avalon Boulevard and U.S. 90 interchange, which factored into local lawmakers' decision to build the courthouse there.
District 3 Commissioner Don Salter, who has been championing the new courthouse project since it was first floated as an idea 22 years ago, has high hopes for economic development in the area.
"I certainly do think the four-laning of Avalon Boulevard, with all the infrastructure in place, including water, sewer and electrical, is going to help it become potentially the center of new business development in Santa Rosa County," Salter told the News Journal.
What kind of businesses could come to Avalon?
Since the four-lane project was completed in 2016 after seven years of construction, Avalon Boulevard hasn't lived up to the high expectations that county and state leaders envisioned when the project first got underway.
Business has lagged behind on the road despite the economy picking up and development in Milton soaring. Instead, business has boomed on nearby U.S. 90 and in the Pace area.
But U.S. 90 and Pace are quickly building out, leading business people to hope that Avalon Boulevard is the next big draw.
"They're supposed to start making this the new thruway, so we're looking for this to build up," said John Childress, a salesman at Cabinets and Floors on Avalon Boulevard, near the new courthouse. "More and more people are starting to use this road versus U.S. 90 because it's a little easier to get up and down."
Salter said the county could create a special business development district at the Interstate 10 and Avalon Boulevard interchange to give special tax incentives for new businesses.
And he said he thinks business will naturally flock to Avalon once the courthouse is complete.
"I’d like to see businesses to support people working in the courthouse, like restaurants and lawyers’ offices. I think that’s automatically going to happen," Salter said. "I’d also like to see more things like hair salons, gymnasiums, stuff like that."
The Santa Rosa County Chamber of Commerce is banking on Avalon development, too. The chamber is building its new location near the U.S. 90 intersection, moving from its longtime location on Stewart Street in Milton.
The existing courthouse structure in downtown Milton has become an anchor for the bustling downtown area, and businesses that have grown up around the courthouse are on edge about what's going to happen when it's gone.
The building itself is owned by Santa Rosa County, but the city of Milton is hoping to work with the county to make use out of either the 45,000-square-foot building or the land it's on once the new judicial complex is built.
But the building is deteriorating quickly, so making a new use out of it seems unlikely. Most recently, the City Council has floated the idea of putting an amphitheater on or near where the current courthouse sits. County Administrator Dan Schebler has said plans for the existing courthouse building are "undetermined."
But many are hoping that what happened around the old courthouse will similarly happen at the new courthouse. Storefronts, sidewalks, restaurants, coffee shops and ice cream stores could become the new norm for Avalon in the next few years. Unlike downtown, Avalon has the benefit of being a four-way highway — a source of division and contention in the Milton community between those who want U.S. 90 to remain a two-lane road and those who want it to be made four lanes, like Avalon.
Whatever happens on Avalon, it won't happen soon. It's expected to take almost two years for construction to wrap up on the new judicial center complex.
"Things are moving slow, like they always have around here," said Dowell, the paint and body shop owner. "But it's a pretty nice place, and things will move along, I think. I hope it moves a little quicker when the courthouse is here."
Annie Blanks can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-435-8632.