When the state Department of Transportation proposed building a by-pass around Bunnell from State Road 100 to U.S. 1 eight years ago, local opposition was almost unanimous. The Bunnell City Commission opposed it. Dozens of residents turned up at a public hearing to oppose it. The chamber of commerce president at the time opposed it. Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon called it “a wild and crazy idea that might as well put a stake right through Bunnell’s heart.”
It was a different story Monday evening. The Flagler County Commission approved an application for an $8 million state grant to build a two-lane bypass around Bunnell. There was no public opposition. There was unanimous approval from commissioners, and support from Bunnell city commissioners.
There are key differences between the two projects, which are sometimes confused. In 2010, the state transportation department’s plan would have cut a four-lane bypass from State Road 100 north to the U.S. 1 intersection with County Road 13. It was in response to the planned 7,000-home, 6,400-acre Palm Coast development called Neoga Lakes on acreage west of U.S. 1. That development at the time was projected to generate thousands of additional vehicle trips in the Bunnell area. The development has been dormant, however, and Bunnell’s opposition in 2010 and 2011 killed the transportation department plan anyway.
The grant proposal approved Monday projects a 1.7-mile, two-lane road curving south of State Road 100 to U.S. 1. It would continue the existing Central Commerce Parkway that passes near the county’s Government Services complex and the future site of a public library branch. It would cut through currently uninhabited land–woods, brush, scrub–and bypass South Bunnell, emerging just south of Elm Avenue. There are no additional right-of-way costs. Bunnell government is the project sponsor, though county government would administer the grant.
Local officials see the project as an economic development engines, pairing it with another application for a [pair of grants to secure some $14 million that would build an industrial structure at the county airport.
“This is not a project where we’re going to build a road and then it’s going to be auto shops and things of that nature,” Katrina Austin of the county’s economic development department told commissioners Monday. Rather, the road cuts through some of the county’s rare industrially-zoned land (there’s just 834 acres industrially zoned acreage in the county, with just 83 acres currently being marketed). The road would promote economic development and diversification by enabling local governments to recruit target industries–without benefiting a particular company. The project would also enable other development, such as apartment complexes.
“Why are we limiting it to two lanes?” Commissioner Charlie Ericksen said. “If it’s a well-used road we might not be looking far ahead.”
“If you imagine trying to build a four-lane, it’d be very expensive,” County Administrator Craig Coffey said, “and through some of these areas you have some severe wetlands you’re plugging through so the impact could really have killed the project if you tried too big too quick, but once you have a road you also get more leeway once you go to expand it.”
The road would also improve safety in that it would provide a new, effective detour around the center of town during evacuation or other emergency events.
The Department of Transportation is not involved in the project, focusing its resources on other projects in the county.
Austin said the plan has been discussed for over 13 years, with a $2 million federal grant and $1.425 million in developer funding (characterized as “private contributions” by county staffers) funding early aspects of the projects, including planning. “By winning the grant and building this road we will have one more tool in our economic competitiveness toolbox,” Austin said. “The construction of this road addresses the lack of readily available and prepared sites that the department has for offering.”
The grant is being submitted to the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, created in 2017 as part of Enterprise Florida–the state’s public-private economic development partnership, funded primarily with state dollars–to foster local economic development without favoring individual businesses so much as enhancing the local business climate. Naturally there’s no guarantee the county will be awarded the grant, or that the road will sprout the sort of economic activity that makes developers swoon: Palm Coast’s Town Center has been ready for take-off for more than a decade and still sees only sporadic activity. But the county is talking the buoyant build-it-they-will-come approach.
It is doing likewise for the Flagler Executive Airport’s grounds, with applications for a $5.2 million grant through the same job growth fund and an additional federal $8.32 million grant to build a single-story 100,000 square foot industrial building there. The proposal mirrors previous economic development efforts at the airport, such as the countys’ construction of what became the Ginn building and one other structure, both at taxpayers’ expense. Both projects lost their tenants and left taxpayers responsible for paying the mortgage for a few years, though the county eventually re-filled the buildings with paying tenants and emerged out of the financial burden it was facing at the depth of the Great Recession.
The difference with the planned project for a 100,000-square-foot industrial building is that local taxpayers would not be on the hook for any of the money: the building and supporting infrastructure would be entirely grant-funded, assuming the county lands the grants. There is a risk that the building could sit vacant. But the county has been highly successful in filling all its available square footage at the airport with paying tenants.
The new building’s tenants would pay rent through the county’s Economic Development Department, presumably helping that department finance itself more readily. The county would also “engage in an apprenticeship program within the company that’s recruited to the area to assist with employees that have been dislocated,” Economic Development Director Helga van Eckert said. The apprenticeship program would be run with CareerSource Flagler-Volusia and the Flagler school district.