There is no question that the biggest story of 2022 was a lot of smaller stories that formed a constellation that twinkled in the skies above Franklin County.
Call this celestial gathering of stars “Emptor,” Latin for buyer, or “Venditor,” meaning seller, or even “Marcator,” merchant.
Whatever you call this constellation, that perceived arrangement of events in the night was the biggest news of the year.
Business, business and more business.
There was the buying of the Best Western Hotel in early April for $4.3 million, and the Owl Cafe and the Tap Room in June, and the grounds of the former Taranto Seafood House in July.
Not to mention the approval in August of the proposed Boss Oyster Marina project, the largest downtown riverfront project in two decades, which would mean the creation of a 76-slip marina and a rebuilt 150-seat Boss Oyster restaurant to replace the previously acquired 24-room Apalachicola River Inn, Caroline’s River Dining, Roseate Spoonbill Lounge and Boss Oyster restaurant.
In each of these cases, Apalachicola businessman Steven Etchen, who manages White Sands Investment Partners LLC had an active hand in these deals. His role in 2022 has propelled him to the role of the county’s most prominent investor and developer of projects, everything from St. George Island vacation rentals to restaurants and hotels.
Etchen’s acquisitions were far from the only business stories that helped shape 2022 into the transformational year it was.
Tamara’s Cafe and Tapas, a prominent dining spot in the center of downtown Apalachicola shut its doors, its owner transforming his business to a catering and food truck operation. The Apalachicola Ice Company closed its doors, resulting in the loss of a popular music venue. Food trucks flourished.
Beyond strictly business news, there was a lot more that happened in 2022.
In politics it was a hugely important year, as the county commission got a pair of new commissioners, one a veteran, Cheryl Sanders, returned to office after a four-year hiatus, and the other a newcomer, Office Amison. Carrabelle got a new commissioner, Bill Grey and said goodbye to a longtime one, Cal Allen.
And perhaps the biggest political news was the passage, by a fairly wide margin, of two levies for the schools, one a brand new sales tax and the other the renewal of a longstanding property tax levy. Superintendent Steve Lanier had championed both measures, their passage giving him a springboard towards a rejuvenation of the district and its mission.
The Apalachicola Bay Charter School said goodbye to longstanding principal Chimene Johnson and it hired a new one, Sherry Ware, which Franklin County Schools said farewell to Laurence Pender after a few years here, replacing him with Danielle Rosson.
Lanark Village resurrected its defunct fire department and Alligator Point expanded the boundaries of its water management district.
Sheriff A.J. Smith continued to expand his crimefighting persona, making regular appearances on Facebook to comment on everything from his officers’ arrests to social service needs to weather and traffic.
Tourism continued to grow, with the lodging tax bringing in a record $3.4 million, ample funds to enable the county to meet the infrastructure demands of greater visitor traffic.
There were no hurricanes that caused catastrophic damage although there were some tornadoes that wreaked havoc.
Lots more happened, most of it good, some of it bad. Here is just a sampling of the major stories, with a hope that 2023 brings all of us good health, greater happiness and a renewed faith that Franklin will continue to be a Panhandle paradise.
Coast Guard rescues two off Apalachicola coast
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office reported that the 42-foot sailing vessel washed up on St. George Island on Sunday, Jan. 16, after the Coast Guard rescued two men Saturday afternoon from a 42-foot sailing vessel beset by bad weather 57 miles off Apalachicola, southeast of Cape San Blas.
An Air Station Clearwater MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew arrived on scene, hoisted the two mariners, and safely transferred them to Air Station Clearwater with no medical concerns.
Sloan sisters die in Eastpoint fire
The Franklin County Sheriff’s Office has confirmed that two elementary school age girls, both students at Franklin County Elementary School, perished in an early Friday morning fire in Eastpoint in January. Franklin County fifth-grader Alexis Sloan, and fourth-grader Lillian Sloan died in the blaze that struck the home of their parents, Crystal and Thomas Cooper, of 607 Wilderness Road.
A flood of donations poured into the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office and the community was able to buy the Coopers a new home, but could only do so much to soften their grief.
County invests in new x-ray, CT scan for Weems
The county commission approved about a half-million dollars in new equipment purchases for Weems Memorial Hospital, including upgraded radiology equipment and a replacement of the CT scan.
By unanimous vote, commissioners approved a request from Weems CEO David Walker to spend $173,000 on upgraded radiology equipment, and $312,000 on a replacement for the CT scanner.
The commissioners also OKd a plan to replace old hospital beds with 27 new ones purchased with state emergency management dollars. In doing so, Weems donated 15 of the older beds to Cross Shores Care Center in Port St. Joe.
SGI fire chief suspended following racial remark
Following a racially charged encounter March 26 on St. George Island, the chief of the St. George Island Volunteer Fire Department has been suspended by the department’s board of directors.
In a news release issued Monday evening from Barbara Sanders, the attorney for the board, the department said Kevin Delahanty, following a special board meeting, had been “immediately suspended from all duties.” In addition, the board directed him to undergo counseling for anger management and to attend diversity training.
Delahanty made ugly racial remarks to Kylon Wishom, a Black man from Baton Rouge, Louisiana who was visiting with his family.
The fire chief later resigned his post.
Homes, rental units OKd for St. James Bay area
In hopes of addressing a shortage of workforce housing rental units, and to create additional single-family homes at competitive prices, a developer near the St. James Bay subdivision east of Carrabelle secured approval from Franklin County commissioners in March to build 66 single-family, and 48 multi-family, units.
By a 3-0 vote March 14, the commissioners OK’d a land use change for close to 80 acres to the south and west of St. James Health and Rehabilitation Center.
John Green, president of Chicago, Illinois-based Lynnwood Development, St. James’ owner, said St. James Bay now has close to 90 employees, with that number expected to grow with the creation of a 72-unit boutique inn approved a year ago.
DeSantis makes two visits to county
Flanked by city and county officials on the porch of the Grady Market in downtown Apalachicola in April, Governor Ron DeSantis doled out the both workforce and infrastructure dollars that would be flowing into both the city and county during the upcoming fiscal year.
Posing with two oversized cardboard checks with both county and city officials, DeSantis outlined the uses of more than $1.3 million in monies for the area approved by the Florida Legislature for the 2022-23 fiscal year, and to be signed into law by the governor.
On the eve of the November midterm election, several hundred Franklin County Republicans gathered Friday evening in a hangar at the Apalachicola Regional Airport to welcome the top of the statewide ticket at a rally led by a rousing appearance by DeSantis.
County seeks court order on Lanark fire department
Following months of controversy that roiled the waters of the St. James Lanark Village Volunteer Fire Department, Franklin County commissioners voted to ask the circuit judge to order a new election of the board members overseeing the department.
In addition, commissioners voted unanimously not to include the regular scheduled disbursement of the fire department monies on the list of bills to be approved at the April 19 regular meeting, and to freeze the department’s Municipal Service Benefits Unit funding and perhaps shift it to neighboring departments.
The county would later work out a deal to have the Carrabelle fire department handle calls for Lanark. The county worked out a deal with a state fire expert to coordinate the creation of a new department. That new department is expected to resume fire department operations in early 2023.
Carrabelle votes to OK Family Dollar
A divided Carrabelle Planning and Zoning board in May approved sending over to the city commission revised plans for a Family Dollar store in the heart of the city.
The city commission later approved the measure, despite strong opposition from city residents to create a roughly 10,500 square foot store at 204 St. James Avenue, on vacant acreage that was once the site of the former Gulf State Community Bank
A lawsuit regarding compliance with the Sunshine Law remains pending in circuit court, but it remains unclear whether a ruling would stymie the project.
Bone flies off to join Ukraine rescue effort
An intrepid Apalachicola pilot who has twice circumnavigated the globe added a third feather in his pilot’s cap – aiding the rescue of refugees from Ukraine.
John Bone became the first American volunteer to join the Ukraine Air Rescue Group, departing from the Apalachicola Regional Airport for Germany in his Cirrus SR22, N140BV. He flew medical supplies into Rzeszow, Poland, and Ukraine refugees back to various locations in Germany for medical attention.
On one trip, four people were transported to Germany, some of them severely disabled and in need of urgent medical care, including one person from Butcha.
Vacasa buys Resort Vacation Properties
The expansion of national companies moving into what had largely been a locally-based mom-and-pop business community in the county has continued into the vacation rental business.
In a news release in June, Vacasa, which describes itself as North America’s leading vacation rental management platform, announced that it will “significantly expand” its local investment by assuming management of Resort Vacation Properties’ premier vacation rental homes and townhouses.
The release said Vacasa has cared for about a dozen homes on the island since 2018.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Three vessels collide off Apalachicola coast
Three men out commercial fishing were injured, and a fishing vessel sank, in an early morning collision in July between three vessels off the coast of St. George Island.
Both of the boats, the “Eli’s Inheritance,” a 31-foot Contender which does both charter and commercial fishing. and the “Humpty Dumpty,” which does commercial fishing exclusively, are owned by Capt. Tommy Merrell. He reported that the ships were anchored, and the crew asleep, when they were struck by a third boat.
The third vessel, a 21-foot tug, Lady Terea, had been pulling two barges. The Coast Guard said it did not perform any medical evacuations. A court case continues in federal court regarding the incident.
State to buy large Mahr tract in Tate’s Hell
In hopes of preserving several active red-cockaded woodpecker clusters, and protecting the water quality of East Bay, the state agreed to buy 376 acres adjacent to 22-mile long Whiskey George Creek, one of the longest streams in the Tate’s Hell State Forest, from Apalachicola businessman George Mahr.
Governor Ron DeSantis and the Florida Cabinet agreed to pay $1.31 million, or roughly $3,484 per acre, for the property.
The property is within what the state calls the St. Joe Timberland Florida Forever project, a variety of parcels in several counties that total 160,945 acres, of which 104,335 acres have been acquired or are under agreement to be acquired.
Oyster City headed to the Big Easy
The Oyster City Brewing Company’s parent company merged with the New Orleans-based Faubourg Brewing Company, setting the stage for what the new company hopes will transform it into one of the largest craft beer producers in the United States, and the largest in the Southeast.
Apalachicola’s Oyster City is one of a trio of craft breweries, along with Catawba out of Asheville, North Carolina, and Palmetto out of Charleston, South Carolina, that together form the product lines of parent company Made By The Water, LLC.
The merger will see Made by the Water locate its company headquarters at the Faubourg Brewery in New Orleans East. The $30 million brewery, built in anticipation of stepped-up beer production, plans to quickly produce well over 100,000 barrels per year, according to the news release.
Carrabelle gives final OK for affordable housing
After several delays promoted by the COVID 19 pandemic, Carrabelle city commissioners moved to set a deadline for completion of a 30-unit affordable housing development on the site of the former Carrabelle High School.
By unanimous consent, the commissioners on Oct. 6 set a deadline of Feb. 28, 2023 for closing on the sale of the property to McDowell Housing Partners, with construction to begin within a year of demolition.
Ahmed Martin, McDowell’s senior development manager who appeared at the meeting via telephone from Miami, said he expects the project to be available for rental sometime in 2025.
Apalachicola OKs NFAACP to oversee cultural center
After being largely shuttered dating back to the start of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic,the Apalachicola Center for History, Cultural and the Arts reopened, after city commissioners approved a management deal with a newly created African American non-profit.
Commissioners voted unanimously at a special meeting Oct. 11 to back a one-year lease by the North Florida African-American Corridor Project, Inc. at a nominal cost of $10 annually to operate the HCA.
The deal marked a giant step forward from the NFAACP, which was incorporated in 2020 after Florida A & M University architecture professor Andrew Chin worked closely with FAMU extension agent Dreamal Worthen, and Apalachicola resident Myrtis Wynn to draw on the success of Smith’s pop-up exhibit, which charted properties on the Hill which African Americans owned and lived, to create a long-time vision.
Seahawks rename fieldhouse in Teat’s honor
In October, the Seahawks paid tribute to the late Ashley Teat, a longtime assistant coach who passed away this past year, by granting them their highest honor.
In a moving ceremony at halftime, Franklin County High School unveiled a giant sign that renamed the field house the Ashley Teat Memorial Field House.
At halftime, Lanier walked Wanta Teat to stand beside a framed jersey of #75, the number Ashley Teat wore, as members of the family stood alongside, including brother Leon Teat and his wife Claire and son Dalton.
On the verge of dredging Eastpoint Channel
After repeated delays and diverted funding dating back nearly two decades, the long-awaited dredging of the Eastpoint Channel met its start date and began in late 2022..
The Army Corps of Engineers’ contractor on the project, Mike Hooks LLC out of Westlake, Louisiana, began staging equipment at the county-owned site where the pavilion used to stand, in keeping with the time frame estimated by Waylon Register, site manager of the Corps’ Panama City office.
After everything is readied, the dredging of the Eastpoint Channel, which runs from Barber’s Seafood to the county boat ramp, commenced in December, with the dredging late to begin on the Two-Mile channel, which runs from the boat ramp at Olan “Buddy” Ward Park all the way to the Apalachicola River.
The two projects will then run concurrently, with a combined cost of about $7 million, and are expected to be completed by early February.